Friday, June 29, 2007

Ric Williamson: "In the left a contract ready to execute. In my right hand, is a one-inch thick document of promises."

TxDOT plays nice with NTTA -- at least for the time being


by Christine DeLoma
Volume 6, Issue 44
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2007

The Texas Transportation Commission voted June 28 to give the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) more time in order to come up with a firm commitment to build State Highway 121.

The Regional Transportation Council (RTC) had voted 27-10 last week in favor of NTTA's proposal over rival Cintra's bid, which was favored by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Earlier this year, TxDOT had reached a tentative deal with Cintra for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the SH 121 toll road. But in response to the controversy over private toll road contracts, lawmakers allowed NTTA to submit a rival bid.

Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas), Tommy Williams (R-Houston) and Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) negotiated with the agency to allow an NTTA offer, with the understanding that if the local transportation council wanted NTTA to do the project instead of Cintra, TxDOT wouldn't stand in the way.

A few commission members expressed concern that the Cintra deal was a done deal and that the NTTA bid was only a "proposal" that still needed negotiating.

"The situation that we find ourselves in is that we have a binding contract in the left hand-- it is a contract ready to execute, write you a check, start construction," Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said. "In my right hand, is a one-inch thick document of promises."

Despite the concerns, the Commission voted to allow NTTA 60 days to come up with a project agreement and 45 days thereafter to deliver the $2.5 billion upfront concession fees to the RTC.

Final contract terms are subject to TTC's approval.

"Now approved," said NTTA board chairman Paul Wageman, "NTTA will begin working over the next 60 days with the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to deliver a project agreement in order to bring this most important mobility project to completion for our Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant county partners.

"Our promise to our NTTA customers, the citizens of North Texas, the RTC and the TTC is that the SH 121 project will be delivered on time, within budget, and with the highest NTTA construction and safety standards," he said.

If NTTA and RTC cannot come up with a project agreement within 60 days, TxDOT will sign over the project to Cintra.

Cintra, however, is ready and waiting if the NTTA project fails through. "As the commission noted, the NTTA proposal is incomplete and lacks a firm financial commitment," said Jose Lopez, Cintra's Austin-based director. "In contrast, with the Cintra/JPMorgan Fund proposal, contracts are in place, toll rates are capped, lending commitments are made, design work is complete, and we are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work."

For Shapiro, TTC's vote was an example of the state's new transportation policy at work. "If in fact MPOs [metropolitan planning organizations] are going to be involved in the decision process locally as the commissioners have been quoted as saying time and time again, this was a perfect example of local communities making the decisions for local projects," Shapiro said. "And I think it is the future of transportation in the state of Texas." O

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