Sunday, June 24, 2007

"Because of its ongoing efforts to build sections of Gov. Perry's Trans Texas Corridor, Cintra holds special status in state transportation circles."

The choice is easy, actually


Fort worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

It's not the least bit hard to describe the choice that Texas Transportation Commission members will face Thursday at their meeting in Austin: (1) Agree with the overwhelming preference of this region's elected officials and allow the North Texas Tollway Authority to build the Texas 121 toll road in Denton and Collin counties, or (2) award the lucrative project to the apparent favorite among state toll road devotees, the Spanish company Cintra.

From here, it's an easy decision: Pick NTTA.

But there is reason to worry that in the boiling pot of Austin politics, the commission may see things differently. Because of its ongoing efforts to build sections of Gov. Rick Perry's proposed Trans Texas Corridor, Cintra holds special status in state transportation circles.

Thirty-seven members of the Regional Transportation Council, representing cities and counties and transportation providers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, studied the competing proposals from NTTA and Cintra for weeks. With input from transportation and financial experts and after much debate, they voted 27-10 on Monday that NTTA's proposal offered greater financial value for the region.

That's exactly the standard on which this decision must be made, and local officials are the best ones to judge it.

This is not a hard choice. The Transportation Commission should make short work of it on Thursday and award the Texas 121 tollway project to NTTA.

Anything else would be substituting state politics for local decision-making.

In the background

Three factors influenced Regional Transportation Council members in picking NTTA for the Texas 121 project:

NTTA offered more money up front ($2.5 billion) and more money over the 50-year life of the contract ($833 million in current dollars) for the right to build the project and collect the tolls. Those payments will be used for other transportation projects across Tarrant, Dallas, Denton and Collin counties. Cintra offered $2.1 billion up front and $700 million over the life of the contract.

Over time, the NTTA proposal has greater upside potential for the region. Inevitable growth in Denton and Collin counties reasonably can be expected to push the traffic count on Texas 121 above current forecasts. Cintra would hand the additional revenue from that growth over to its investors. NTTA would keep the money at home and use it on other local projects.

Despite disagreements that some of these officials have had with NTTA in the past, on a long-term project like this they'd still rather deal with a local public agency led by a locally appointed board than with a foreign company. NTTA has plans to start work on five other tollway projects in the next five years, four of them crucial to Tarrant County drivers: Texas 170 near Fort Worth Alliance Airport, the Southwest Parkway stretching into Johnson County, a southern extension of Texas 360 and (just over the line in Dallas County) construction of Texas 161 between Texas 183 and Interstate 20.

Four years ago, the Transportation Commission authorized planning organizations like the Regional Transportation Council to set priorities and guide spending on road and transit projects in the state's major metropolitan areas. That policy included -- even emphasized -- toll road projects.

Ric Williamson, then a commission member and now its chairman, called that local decision-making "clearly the thrust of the governor's instruction about the metros" and said the emphasis on local direction represented "monumental steps" beyond the prior procedure of centralized decision-making from Austin and piecemeal funding of projects across the state.

Local officials have made the big decision on Texas 121. Now Austin should back them up.

So what about Cintra?

The Transportation Commission clearly has the final authority to approve projects in the state highway system, including this one.

Two points could be used to try to spin the decision in Cintra's favor:

State officials picked Cintra's proposal in February as the best among three private company bids on the Texas 121 project. Local legislators were outraged that NTTA had been discouraged from bidding at the time, and they passed a law that reopened the bid process.

Some Cintra backers have said that the reopening violated federal procurement rules and that the Federal Highway Administration might require that the $237 million that it has invested in Texas 121 be returned to Washington. Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison objected to that interpretation in a May 1 letter to federal highway administrators.

Indeed, this one is a real stretch.

What the federal money paid for has already been delivered: the main lanes of the existing Texas 121 bypass around Lewisville. North Texans are driving on that road (also a tollway) and will continue driving on it. The fact that the new toll road would connect to it should make no difference to federal officials. NTTA plans to use no federal money on the new project.

Some hand-wringers among the Cintra backers say that the Spanish company, having invested a lot of money in its Texas 121 proposal since the state first invited interested parties to take a look at the project more than two years ago and having been selected once as the apparent best bidder, might sue if the contract is given to NTTA instead.

Anybody can file a lawsuit, but it's unlikely in this case. Cintra is aggressively pursuing other Texas toll road business, and taking the state to court would be shooting itself in the foot.

In addition, state law provides that even unsuccessful bidders in cases like this should be reimbursed for their expenses by the state or the region. That will cost a few million dollars, but it would make Cintra whole again -- and the money is only a drop in the bucket when compared with the $400 million in upfront money by which NTTA's bid exceeds Cintra's.

© 2007 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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