Friday, May 11, 2007

Cintra to meet with Regional Transportation Council before a vote is taken to decide the fate of SH 121

Compromise would slow private toll roads


By John Moritz and Gordon Dickson
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- Gov. Rick Perry's camp on Thursday ratcheted up the rhetoric in a looming showdown with lawmakers over a sweeping transportation initiative that would put the brakes on several new toll roads even as legislative leaders said they are eager to find a compromise.

And a compromise that would avoid delaying several long-planned projects in the Metroplex is exactly what a delegation of North Texas officials said they want.

"We are the largest economy in Texas, and if this economy is going to sustain itself we very much need mobility," said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

State Sen. John Carona, the Dallas Republican who is chairman of the Senate transportation committee, said lawmakers have been working most of the week to send Perry a new version of the bill that will address his concerns. And Carona made clear that any updated initiative will not compromise the Legislature's desire to slow down the drive toward private toll roads.

"I think we're close. I think we're very close," said Carona, expressing hope that they can avoid a special session. "I can't guarantee a settlement. I can't predict what the governor's staff will do. I can't predict what the governor himself will do."

But the governor's office made clear that Perry won't accept the measure on his desk, even if it means bringing lawmakers back to Austin after the regular session ends May 28.


U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters sent U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison a letter on Wednesday suggesting that Texas House Bill 1892 would not endanger federal highway funds earmarked for Texas.

But Perry's office on Thursday released a letter from the U.S. Transportation Department's top lawyer saying that a careful reading of the far-reaching legislation indicated that tens of millions of dollars that would pay for such projects as the North Tarrant Express and an improved Texas 121 connecting Fort Worth to D/FW Airport might no longer be available.

The governor's office also released letters from several local leaders around the state urging that HB 1892 be vetoed because other key transportation initiatives could be at risk.

And today, several other local leaders are scheduled to attend a news conference at the governor's office in the Capitol to call for a veto of the bill.

Metroplex concerns

Morris said several key points must be changed in the bill to prevent serious delays in Metroplex road work. Among them:

Development agreements with private companies that are in the planning stages should be allowed to continue.

A 40-year maximum length of contracts with private companies should be extended to 50 years. Otherwise, Morris said, improvements to the Tower 55 rail intersection in central Fort Worth and the Loop 9 road project in south Dallas will be delayed. Private companies generally don't make much, if any, profit in the first 40 years of a deal, industry experts say.

Money generated by a toll project should stay within the region but should be used across county lines as necessary. For example, proceeds from a Texas 121 toll road in Denton and Collin counties are earmarked for projects in other counties, including the Grapevine funnel and North Tarrant Express toll lane projects.

Carona said that any bill to emerge from his committee would ensure that projects in Tarrant County would not be shortchanged, he said.

"What's good for Dallas has to be good for Fort Worth, and vice versa," Carona said.

The private sector

Private toll road builder Cintra isn't going to lose the Texas 121 project without a fight.

The Spanish company has asked to meet in person with the Metroplex's Regional Transportation Council before a vote is taken on the fate of the road.

Morris said Thursday he has received the request and will honor it.

Earlier this year, with the RTC's blessing, Cintra won a Texas Department of Transportation bid to build and manage Texas 121 as a toll road for 50 years.

But that was before an anti-toll-road sentiment in Austin started growing.

Lawmakers upset by Cintra's bid and the Transportation Department's aggressive courting of privately funded toll roads demanded that the North Texas Tollway Authority be given another chance to win the project.

What's next?

Carona said he hopes that lawmakers can send Perry the compromise legislation by the middle of next week. The legislative session ends May 28.

John Moritz, 512-476-4294 Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816

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