Wednesday, March 14, 2007

“The toll road being a 50-year deal is bothersome to me. That’s two and a half generation ordeal.”

Local officials react to S.H. 121 toll contract

March 13, 2007

By Crystal Forester
McKinney Courier-Gazette
Copyright 2007

The announcement of a deal with Cintra to develop State Highway 121 brought mixed reactions from local officials.

State Rep. Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton, said he would prefer that the North Texas Tollway Authority operate and own all toll roads in the region but the state has to focus if the Cintra partnership is a good deal.

“We had NTTA created in the legislation more than a decade ago so that the cash flow from our region would stay in our region and we could plan a regional wide toll road system,” Jackson said. “That is what I would have preferred, but the state, before I was here, the state had different ideas.”

Gov. Rick Perry announced on Feb. 27 that Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte, the Spanish company that is half of the partnership of the state contract for the Trans-Texas Corridor, won the bid to build, operate and maintain S.H. 121 toll lanes in Denton and Collin counties.

State Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, said he agrees that he would like to see the bid closer to home.

“I would have preferred it to go to an American company, but apparently an American company didn’t bid high enough to gain that project. They were all in the game,” Solomons said. He also said the road is taking too long.

“The toll road being a 50-year deal is bothersome to me. That’s two and a half generation ordeal,” Solomons said. “Yes, we need the money. Yes, we need transportation. Yes, we think having a toll road is not necessarily a bad thing. In essence we’re having to move in that direction for a little while, but to have it for 50 years, I think a lot of people are stunned by that.”

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, announced in a released statement that she opposes the deal.

“There is a growing discomfort among citizens about the rush to toll so many roads in our region and about turning over highway construction to a foreign company,” Nelson said. “The author of this legislation, who served on the Texas Transportation Commission, helped me better understand what the state is giving up by entering into these contracts that have yet to be fully disclosed. Non-compete clauses prevent the state from building roads that would compete with toll roads, buyback provisions require us to repay the up-front money and the operators have unlimited authority to raise toll rates. Acting in haste now is not worth the long-term costs to taxpayers.”

Jim Witt, city manager of Coppell, said he is in support of SH-121 being turned into a tollway. He said the city has been in support of the project even before it was changed into a toll road.

Approximately five years ago, Coppell, Carrollton, The Colony, Grapevine and Lewisville joined together to put in money to finish the highway since the state did not have enough funds.

Coppell planned to put $200,000 a year toward the project reaching a total of $1 million input. However, when the project was changed into a privately-owned toll way, the city of Coppell got its money back.

Witt said the city is in support of the completed project as it benefits the city in many ways. First, there are several undeveloped pieces of property near the highway. The highway would increase the value and make the property better for economic development.

Second, traveling is made easier for commuters en route to their jobs. Witt said although it only saves five to seven minutes now, the highway is less than a third completed which would save even more time for commuters once it is completed.

Finally, it will help move employees to the industrial part of town.

Witt said large trucks and construction vehicles will be more easily moved once there is an easily accessible highway along Coppell.

Witt says the city only worries that if the current contract falls through and the toll road project doesn't get funded, the excess revenue won't go to Coppell and the other original funding cities. Since the last eight mile construction of Freeport Parkway toward the new toll area of SH-121, it is directly affected by the tollway and revenues from it, Witt said.

The way the highway was originally designed benefitted the surrounding communities, and if the revenues are spread into other communities not directly affected, the city will have to fund greater portions of Freeport Parkway that are constructed for the purpose of 121, Witt said.

"What we fear is that the excess revenue will go into a larger pot of cities not affected by the highway," Witt said.

A new bill was recently introduced by State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, that could put a “moratorium” on toll road projects taken over by private companies, which could possibly delay future development of S.H. 121.

Senate Bill 1267, a bill authored by Nichols and signed onto by 24 additional senators, including Florence Shapiro, would place a hold on comprehensive development agreements or sale of toll projects to private companies saying they “may not contain a provision permitting the private participant to operate and collect revenue from the toll project,” according to the bill.

The bill also calls for a nine-member legislative committee to be created to study “the public policy implications of including in a comprehensive development agreement entered into by a toll project entity with a private participant in connection with a toll project a provision that permits the private participant to operate and collect revenue from the toll project,” according to the bill.

If passed, the bill would last for nearly two years officially taking effect on Sept. 1. A companion bill, House Bill 2772, also has the support of 66 state representatives, including State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, according to Texas Legislative records.

If Cintra is awarded the final bid, which is conditional until final environmental clearance of the S.H. 121 segment in Collin County and the successful financial close of the apparent best value proposer, the main lanes will be constructed 25 years earlier than if regular state gasoline financing was used.

Cintra is committing to 49 payments in excess of $700 million, for a total of $2.8 billion for the S.H. 121 project, $5.06 billion to the region and $2.1 billion for the completion of construction in Collin County, said Bill Hill, the district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation Dallas District.

Jackson said people are focusing on the wrong issue.

“There are a lot of people talking about foreign ownership. That’s really not the issue,” he said. “The issue is, is it a good deal. As long as the people who are buying assets in our country allow us as individuals to buy assets in their country, we’re not going to stop that. I never saw a toll road that you can put in a brief case and carry off. So, it’s here. I think whether the ownership is by somebody or some group that has out of country ownership or not is beside the point. The point should be, are we getting a good deal.”

Staff writers Danny Gallagher, Brandi Hart, Dan Eakin, Katy Moore and Tasha Hayton contributed to this report.

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