Sunday, March 18, 2007

"The future of the State Highway 121 toll road remains the subject of intense debate."

Officials try to gauge new estimate on 121

March 18, 2007

Tony Hartzel
The Dallas Morning News
Co9pyright 2007

Even with a multibillion-dollar offer on the table, the future of the State Highway 121 toll road remains the subject of intense debate.

Last week, the North Texas Tollway Authority submitted its own preliminary estimate – officials won't call it a counteroffer – for the Highway 121 project.

The agency's cursory study shows that it can pay $6.3 billion in cash for the rights to the toll project. If it holds up to more scrutiny, that amount overshadows the winning $2.8 billion bid from the Spanish company Cintra that state officials announced Feb. 27.

No one wants to leave more than $3 billion on the table, but it's still unclear whether the two offers are comparable.

"Our interest is in making sure the region gets the best possible value," said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. "We aren't comparing apples to apples. But if the NTTA wants to do a bid, that would be music to my ears."

The key question on most minds is whether the tollway authority can afford to pay $6.3 billion without affecting its ability to build other needed projects in North Texas. Those projects include an extension of Bush Turnpike in eastern Dallas County and Southwest Parkway in Tarrant County.

At a Senate Transportation and Homeland Security meeting last week, key lawmakers asked the tollway authority for more information about its financial capacity. Tollway authority officials say they should have a better idea this week about their ability to pay for Highway 121 and all other projects.

"We'll definitely be as responsive as we can," said tollway authority board chairman Paul Wageman. "But we are not doing a bid. We're giving information right now."

Compiling a full bid to compare to Cintra's offer could have other ramifications. A full bid could cost the tollway authority several million dollars. It also would take several months.

A delay of several months could place the Highway 121 deal in jeopardy, as state lawmakers consider bills that would halt all toll road deals with private companies for the next two years.

Mr. Wageman has emphasized that the tollway authority is only responding to lawmakers' information requests. The agency intends to honor its agreement with the state to study and possibly build a host of projects while leaving Highway 121 to others, Mr. Wageman added.

Lawmakers say they want more information from the tollway authority to help them determine the benefit of toll road deals with private groups.

But lawmakers awaiting more information from the tollway authority already have started wondering aloud about delaying the Highway 121 deal. Cintra was announced as the best of three private bidders last month, but the deal has not been finalized.

State Sen. John Carona of Dallas, a Republican who is the chairman of the transportation committee, asked at a hearing last week whether local policy officials on the Regional Transportation Council or at the state would consider delaying the Highway 121 deal if it means more money is available for other projects.

"I would hope that RTC members would not be so arrogant as to disregard that," Mr. Carona said at the hearing.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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