Tuesday, May 08, 2007

"I guess I still have some concerns about the toll rates the citizens will actually be paying."

Toll authority unveils 121 bid

NTTA says payments higher than Cintra's; $1.3 billion could benefit local roads

May 8, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

PLANO – North Texas Tollway Authority officials on Monday unveiled a $3.3 billion proposal to build and operate the planned State Highway 121 toll road, touting the bid as a homegrown alternative to the state's tentative $2.8 billion deal with Spain-based Cintra.

Tollway authority board members unanimously approved submitting a proposal that includes a $2.5 billion upfront payment to the state and $833 million more to be paid out over 50 years. NTTA officials said their bid would generate $1.3 billion in net revenue over that period that would be pumped back into regional roads rather than pocketed by private interests.

If accepted, the proposal would boost the agency's profile, and officials said it would solidify the NTTA's plans to deliver up to five future toll roads.

"To me, this is the next big step for the agency," said board Chairman Paul Wageman.

But while regional leaders praised the idea of keeping more toll revenue in North Texas, some said the tollway authority still needs to convince skeptics that it can handle the multibillion- dollar Highway 121 toll road without endangering its other projects around the region.

"Their numbers and their forecasts will be challenged," said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. "It's going to be dependent upon them and the consultants that they used to support or to justify the numbers that they used."

Coveted project

Once the four-year construction project is complete, a motorist driving from Coppell in Denton County to Central Expressway in Collin County would pay roughly $3 for a one-way trip. NTTA board members agreed to follow the same toll-rate policies for Highway 121 that were previously adopted by regional transportation authorities.

Highway 121 is among the most coveted toll-road projects in the nation. Legislators have spared the road from a proposed two-year moratorium on private toll contracts.

This year, state officials announced a tentative deal with Cintra that includes a $2.1 billion upfront payment and another $700,000 over the life of the 50-year contract. But that deal has not yet cleared financial and environmental reviews and has not received final approval.

Critics objected to a number of provisions in the Cintra deal and have raised concerns about turning over a state highway to a foreign company. In March, Texas lawmakers asked that the state-chartered tollway authority be allowed to enter a bid.

Cintra representatives declined to comment Monday on the NTTA proposal.

The agency's bid now will be considered by the Regional Transportation Council, the body that oversees transportation planning in North Texas. The Texas Transportation Commission also must change or waive a previous agreement with the tollway authority spelling out the future of at least six North Texas toll projects.

NTTA officials said their proposal has sound financial backing and has been vetted by more than 30 bankers and credit analysts. They also cited a 50-year track record of delivering road projects on time and on budget.

"The issue of credibility, the issue of risk and so forth has in my opinion really been answered," said Jack Miller, the tollway authority's vice chairman. "We've given toll roads a good name. We've demonstrated that we can be a public servant."

More expensive

Even under the tollway authority's bid, Highway 121 will be a more expensive toll road than North Texas motorists are accustomed to driving. Tolls would start out in 2010 at about 14.5 cents per mile, compared with 10 cents a mile now on the Dallas North Tollway and Bush Turnpike.

City officials in Frisco repeatedly have argued that the transportation council's rates for Highway 121 are too high. On Monday, Frisco City Manager George Purefoy said he had mixed feelings about the tollway authority's proposal.

"Certainly, it's great to see the money stay in the region," Mr. Purefoy said. "I guess I still have some concerns about the toll rates the citizens will actually be paying."

Mr. Whitley, the Tarrant County judge who also sits on the Regional Transportation Council, greeted Monday's announcement with guarded optimism.

"We want to provide the most dollars as quickly as possible for transportation in the region," Mr. Whitley said. "While I may still be a little skeptical about their ability, until they hiccup and say they can't do something that we want done, I'd say we go with where the dollars are and just hope that they're not miscalculating."

"We'll look at it," he said. "I think that we could very easily approve it. And then I think all of us will hope and pray that three or four or five years from now, they don't come in and say, 'Oops, we can't do this any more.' "


© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co www.dallasnews.com

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