Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Tarrant County Judge: "Tell us how much money you can give us upfront, because that's what we want."

N. Texas leaders to voice opposition to tollway ban

March 21, 2007

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

Metroplex leaders are traveling to Austin today to testify against a proposed two-year ban on privately run toll roads, which they fear will seriously delay work on congested Tarrant County highways.

They hope local projects -- the Texas 114/121 DFW Connector in Grapevine, and the Interstate 35W/Loop 820/Texas 183 North Tarrant Express -- can be exempted from the proposed moratorium because they aren't traditional toll-road projects, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said. In both projects, existing lanes would remain free and privately funded toll express lanes would be added to the medians.

'We need money upfront to build roads because we're not getting money from the state,' Whitley said Tuesday during a Regional Transportation Council briefing in Arlington. Whitley said he has talked with influential senators about exempting the projects from the ban.

North Texas officials will also tell lawmakers that they're willing to let the North Texas Tollway Authority rebid on the Texas 121 toll-road project in Denton and Collin counties north of Grapevine. Much of the anti-toll-road sentiment now brewing in Austin stems from the RTC's decision last year to let the Texas Department of Transportation farm out the project to a private toll road operator, rather than let the tollway authority build it.

As a result of the RTC's action, Spanish private operator Cintra offered to pay $2.8 billion to the region for use on other nearby highway projects, in exchange for the right to collect tolls on Texas 121 for 50 years.

But this month, tollway authority officials -- supported by Dallas state Rep. John Carona, the influential chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee -- said they may be able to generate more than twice as much for other regional projects, perhaps more than $6 billion, if they can build the road.

However, RTC members favor Cintra's proposal because it offers most of the money upfront, whereas the tollway authority's proposal would be based upon installments made over 50 years.

'If you can give us this much more money, then tell us how much money you can give us upfront, because that's what we want,' Whitley told tollway authority officials.

Whitley, Arlington Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon, Burleson Mayor Ken Shetter and other western Metroplex officials plan to attend and possibly testify during the daylong Senate committee hearing.

Jerry Hiebert, who has been the tollway authority's acting executive director since February, questioned the RTC's policy favoring 75 percent of toll proceeds upfront and 25 percent over time, which Cintra relied upon to make its bid. Such an arrangement, Hiebert said, could create a windfall for private bidders in the latter years of a 50-year deal.

But Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said the RTC's philosophy is to get money upfront because the cost of road work is rising rapidly, and improvements to area freeways are needed now.

Western Metroplex leaders are concerned that if the tollway authority builds the Texas 121 project, other projects it has pledged to build could be delayed, such as the Southwest Parkway in southwest Fort Worth, Burleson and Cleburne.

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