Thursday, June 28, 2007

“They could have canceled the Cintra procurement and awarded the project outright to us.”

State chooses NTTA for SH 121

June 28, 2007

By Josh Hixson
McKinney Courier-Gazette
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — The Texas Transportation Commission voted 4-1 on Thursday to give the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) tentative approval for construction and tolling of State Highway 121 in Collin and Denton counties.

The commission’s decision allows the NTTA 60 days to reach a project agreement with the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) and 45 days to close on that agreement. If the deadlines are missed, the contract would be awarded to Cintra, the private Spanish company that had been tentatively given the project in February.

The NTTA’s proposal would offer $2.5 billion up front and $833 million more over the course of a 49-year lease of the project. In addition, the NTTA has promised the RTC to begin five other road projects in the North Texas area.

The first split vote in the history of the current commission — according to chairman Ric Williamson — came after two hours of intense deliberation.

Commissioner Ted Houghton of El Paso— the lone dissenter— argued that Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) officials should be involved in the negotiation process with the NTTA and the RTC.

“I want TxDOT in on the 60-day process,” Houghton said. “I think our staff should be joined at the hip with the NTTA.”

Williamson said “baseless” accusations and “unattributed quotes” about the character of TxDOT staff have made him wary of encouraging the department to get re-involved in the process.

“Every time something doesn’t work, it is always TxDOT’s fault,” Williamson said. “I am having a hard time keeping district engineers…because they are getting beat up by public officials.”

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, sat in the front row in the meeting room, next to NTTA chairman Paul Wageman. Shapiro said the commission’s approval signals a shift toward local control of transportation planning.

“I think this set the tone for the rest of the state,” Shapiro said. “This was a perfect example of local communities making the decisions for local projects. I think it is the future of transportation in the state of Texas.”

Williamson agreed.

“Part of Gov. [Rick] Perry’s strategy is to tell the regional planning organizations to be aggressive and make their own decisions,” Williamson said. “We are here to help them.”

While the outcome was not exactly what the NTTA was looking for, Wageman said he is confident the tolling authority can work with the RTC to create a project agreement in the time allotted.

“They could have canceled the Cintra procurement and awarded the project outright to us,” Wageman said. “I think we have to be very focused on getting this thing done in the time frame allowed us. “

“By the end of the day today, or certainly by Monday, we will work up a schedule with the RTC so that we can drive this thing to a successful conclusion,” Wageman said.

Cintra was given approval by the Texas Transportation Commission to toll and construct SH 121 before the state legislature stepped in and allowed the NTTA to submit a bid.

Houghton expressed his concern that the commission’s choice to support the NTTA would diminish foreign private sector interest in future Texas highway projects.

“It is unfortunate [Cintra] has been vilified as foreigners,” Houghton said. “We welcome them to this state.”

In a statement released Thursday, Jos/ Lopez, Cintra’s Austin-based director, said the NTTA’s proposal lacks significant guarantees.

“As the commission noted, the NTTA proposal is incomplete and lacks a firm financial commitment,” Lopez stated. “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.”

“What you get from us is a guarantee and a legally binding contract that is ready to deliver SH 121,” Lopez stated.

Shapiro said she was glad to finally put to the controversial past of the SH 121 procurement process behind her.

“A lot of different sources kind of forced NTTA to agree to stay out of 121 and do other projects,” Shapiro said. “I believe that was an unnecessary diversion and that is all over with.”

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