Friday, April 13, 2007

"State and local transportation officials were wise to reopen the competition. "


Read the Fine Print

April 13, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The North Texas Tollway Authority's decision to assemble a last-minute bid for the State Highway 121 toll project might add a bit of clarity to a chaotic atmosphere for transportation planning.

State and local transportation officials were wise to reopen the competition. Comparing an NTTA bid with one from the Spanish company Cintra should address concerns that the region would get an inferior deal if it carried out plans to lease toll rights to the private partner.

Let the better bid win.

Nevertheless, a cloud of uncertainty hovers, stemming from the Legislature's furious and disjointed attempts to mollify the public's beefs with toll roads. The House this week passed an ungainly measure to impose a moratorium on private partnerships to finance toll projects. North Texas lawmakers succeeded in exempting NTTA's service area, arguing appropriately that vital projects need the option of private financing in the absence of enough state money.

That would be fine, except for potential complications embedded in the fine print. The bill gives NTTA the first option on local toll projects and authority to use state right-of-way without the obligation to pay upfront money. Moreover, the measure says the NTTA can develop a project essentially on its own terms.

It's an open – but important – question whether the bill would effectively exempt the NTTA from oversight by North Texas' Regional Transportation Council, a panel of mostly elected officials from across nine counties. The council, based on public input, regularly assembles a 25-year plan – including a role for the NTTA – for building a regional road network.

Council policy requires would-be toll operators to offer upfront money when bidding on a project. That money would be used to jumpstart other road needs that otherwise would wait years for state funding. Local officials have turned to this funding mechanism because of inadequate state support. Lawmakers should not give final passage to any measure that trumps local efforts to overcome state neglect.

There's no indication that an NTTA bid for 121 would not contain an upfront offer to vie with Cintra's $2.1 billion. But a question mark should not hang over projects down the road.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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