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Let’s share that toll road revenue

Have you ever taken the toll road connector from the Hardy Toll Road to IAH? I have, many times. Being able to bypass the traffic on Beltway 8 and JFK Boulevard makes it worthwhile for me to take the Hardy instead of I-45. Turns out that the city of Houston paid for part of the construction of this connector, but due to a weird quirk in the contract with the Harris County Toll Road Authority it’s not collecting any revenue for it. The city would like to renegotiate that deal.

In a recent letter to county toll toad officials, Houston Airport System director Mario Diaz pointed to the 1997 deal spelling out how the two governments would construct, maintain and collect tolls on the road.

The agreement, in what officials called a “puzzling” clause, does not give the city access to any of the revenues unless it builds its own toll plaza, Assistant County Attorney Nick Turner said. The county would have to tear down its existing toll plaza.

“It just doesn’t seem to reflect sanity,” said Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Peter Key.

In his letter, Diaz said the city has no plans to build such a plaza, but he noted that the city contributed 43 percent of the road’s $31.7 million construction cost and maintains a roughly 1.3-mile stretch of the road on airport property.

Tolls should be shared “in the same manner and ratio that construction costs were shared and we continue to share in maintenance responsibilities,” Diaz wrote.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved Key’s request to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal with the city.

“This is an outdated agreement,” Key said. “None of us really understand the mindset of the people that were involved in this 14, probably 15 years ago, in terms of setting it up. It ought to be amended to reflect today’s reality.”

One would think that a few of the folks who negotiated that deal are still with us, so it might be worthwhile to track them down and ask them. Not that it really matters that much today – this is clearly a silly arrangement, and it doesn’t make sense for anyone to have the city tear down an existing toll booth to build its own, so working this out ought to be easy enough. At least, if everyone involved is a grownup about it, it ought to be easy.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he does not support sharing the airport connector’s tolls with the city, saying it seems clear the city is not entitled to the revenues unless it constructs a toll plaza.

“I would hope that the city of Houston has enough common sense not to go out and tear down perfectly good tool booths to build their own so they can collect money,” Radack said. “I believe everybody should shake hands and leave things the way it is.”

Yes, in case you needed a reminder, you should never use the words “Steve Radack” and “grownups” in the same sentence. It’s always nice to know that some things never change.

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5 Comments

  1. Sounds as if the county out-negotiated the city in regard to the deal. Why should the county voluntarily re-negotiate a good deal to its detriment?

    This reminds me of the similar situation in which the city had made a sensible arrangement for airport users (allowing them to use their toll tags to pay parking automatically at airport lots), but entered into an absurdly expensive contract with the provider. The city ultimately elected to terminate the deal to save money.

    The real solution to have competent professionals negotiate these contracts for the city. Unfortunately, there are rarely any consequences for the incompetent people in city government who negotiate such bad deals. Thus, the syndrome continues.

    So it goes.

  2. Tom, if that’s the case then Radack has no grounds to complain about the city tearing down the existing toll plaza and building its own, since that’s what the deal says they need to do. If he doesn’t like that, there’s a simple enough solution to avoid it.

    As for the people who negotiated this deal, what exactly would you propose doing to them after all this time? And how would it help to prevent future incompetence?

  3. Charles, Radack would have no legal grounds from stopping the City from building its own toll booths, although the pragmatic thing to do would be for the City simply to buy the existing toll booths from the County for an amount that is commensurate with what it would cost the City to build a new one. It’s a reflection of the amateurish nature of the City’s handling of the contract that such an alternative isn’t in the agreement.

    As for the people who negotiated the deal, if they are still around (and they well may be), they should be called on to the carpet to explain how the City ended up being on the short end of what appears to be (at least on the surface) and unfavorable contract with the County. If there is no good explanation, then they should be sanctioned in some respect (as you know, if they were in the private sector, they might be fired over mishandling a contract negotiation). They sure as heck shouldn’t be representing the City in another contract negotiation without competent supervision.

    I’ve always thought the best way to handle such things from the City’s standpoint is to have the City Attorney, a rep from the Mayor’s office and a rep from City Council oversee the negotiations with the assistance of experienced counsel from the private sector in documenting the deal. I’d be curious to know how this deal was handled. My bet is that the City’s attorney’s office handled most or all of it without the assistance of outside counsel.

  4. DORIS BARTOSH says:

    How much money does the hardy toll road take in a year. and why are we not updated
    on this revenue. I want to know as i use it all the time and it is so busy where is this
    money going. let me hear from you soon.

  5. […] here for the background. You will note that at the time, Steve Radack did have a problem with this idea. […]