Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"If the TTC changes the local decision made by the council and chooses a private company, the message sent will reverberate throughout Texas."

Transportation commission has final say on 121

June 20, 2007

By Josh Hixson, Staff Writer
Mckinney Courier-Gazette
Copyright 2007

All eyes will be on Austin on June 28 as the Texas Transportation Commission decides the fate of the State Highway 121 toll project.

The commission can either follow the Regional Transportation Council’s 27-10 vote, which would give the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) approval to begin construction and tolling of SH 121, or it can appoint Cintra. Cintra is a private Spanish construction firm and is supported by many people in Denton County, said Jim Witt, city manager of Coppell.

The five-member commission in Austin, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, oversees all of the Texas Department of Transportation state construction projects and will choose the fate of SH 121.

Chairman Ric Williamson and the rest of the commission in Austin have said they will respect the Regional Transportation Council’s vote.

“The commission has stated very publicly that they want the locals to make a decision and they will respect that decision,” said Randall Dillard, a spokesperson for TxDOT. “However I can’t speculate on exactly what they will do on June 28.”

Carrollton city officials noted that the regional authority charged with the decision had two competitive offers to consider, make the decision even more difficult. Mayor Becky Miller, a member of the regional transportation council, told members of the Carrollton city council Tuesday that her decision to vote for the NTTA over Cintra was one of the most difficult decisions she’d ever made, largely because the process was so competitive and both contenders offered competitive bids.

City Manager Leonard Martin noted that with a decision made as to who the transportation council should endorse, the process can finally begin.

“It’s good this process if finally moving forward,” he said. “Either way it goes at the state, it’s good for the region.”

Leonard said the regional council had two highly competitive bids before it, making the endorsement process even more challenged.

“It’s like hiring people,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got two people who could both do an outstanding job, and you just have to make a tough choice. It’s a positive for us that this was such a tough choice.”

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, was present for two of the RTC’s meetings, and said she is “very concerned” the transportation commission will not give the NTTA its “fair shot.”

“I am not going to take anything for granted until the decision is ruled final by the commission,” Shapiro said. “If they change the local decision made by the council and choose a private company, the message sent by the commission will reverberate throughout Texas.

“The local groups might as well pack up and go home because TxDOT will do whatever they please regardless of the local decision,” Shapiro said.

Paul Wageman, chairman of the NTTA’s board of directors, said Tuesday he is asking Williamson to act on his earlier promise.

“I expect Chairman Williamson to stand by his word and honor the local decision,” Wageman said. “We expect the transportation commission to affirm the vote made yesterday by the RTC.”

While officials expect the transportation commission to approve NTTA’s bid, Perry and TxDOT officials have been vocal about their support of Cintra, Shapiro said.

“They want the private sector involved in building state roads,” Shapiro said.

Bill Hale and Maribel Chavez — district engineers for TxDOT and members of the RTC — both voted in favor of Cintra Monday.

“That is not a surprise,” Shapiro said. “At the (RTC) meeting on Thursday, several (TxDOT) employees spoke of their desire for Cintra to do the project.”

James McCarley, president of the Dallas Regional Mobility Coalition, echoed Shapiro and Wageman’s sentiments.

“If [TxDOT’s] word is any good, NTTA will get their vote,” he said. “There are several possibilities. The staff [of TxDOT] still indicated they would recommend Cintra. But that would have to be over the vote [of the RTC] and the State Bill 792 legislation that directed [them to the fact that] if NTTA’s offer is equal or better than Cintra’s, the commission must vote for NTTA.

“There will be quite a controversy if they don’t vote for [NTTA, but] stranger things have happened,” McCarley said.

Contact Josh Hixson at Staff writer Katy Moore contributed to this story.

© 2007 Mckinney Courier Gazette:

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