"Three of the RTC's members have a direct stake in the results."
By GORDON DICKSON
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The stage is set today for political intrigue and a monumental decision on the future of Metroplex toll roads.
The Regional Transportation Council is expected to choose this afternoon between two proposals to build the Texas 121 toll road in Denton and Collin counties.
The vote is expected to be very close. About a third of the RTC's 40 voting members have expressed support for a privately funded toll road proposal by Spanish company Cintra and U.S. partner JPMorgan. Another one-third have said they want a public agency, the North Texas Tollway Authority, to do the job.
Others on the RTC are uncertain or unwilling to tip their hand.
The tension is unprecedented.
"It's really almost otherworldly to me," tollway authority Chairman Paul Wageman said after fielding questions during a five-hour workshop last week.
As voting nears, questions about whether the process is fair are bubbling to the surface on all sides of the debate.
Each side has hired well-known economists to argue that its proposal is the best value. An independent analysis conducted for the RTC by Price Waterhouse Coopers concluded Thursday that Cintra-JPMorgan's bid was less risky and in most scenarios a better financial deal.
But on Friday, the tollway authority cried foul, noting that Price Waterhouse has worked with Cintra and JPMorgan on previous projects -- including a successful 2004 Trans-Texas Corridor bid.
Officials from Cintra, JPMorgan and Pricewaterhouse all said during a workshop last week that it's common in the industry for companies to be partners in some projects and adversaries in others.
Both bidders have offered to pay the region several billion dollars, to be used on other traffic relief projects. In exchange, the bidders would collect tolls for 50 years.
Cintra would be allowed to keep its profits and would eat losses if the project failed. Officials say that if the tollway authority won the bid, they'd use the money to build other toll roads -- but that if something went wrong, drivers could be asked to pay higher tolls to make up the difference.
Cintra-JPMorgan originally won the bid, offering to pay the region $2.15 billion upfront and $715 million over 50 years. But Dallas lawmakers intervened and insisted that the tollway authority get another shot. The authority offered to pay $2.4 billion upfront and $833 million over 50 years.
A direct stake
Three of the RTC's members have a direct stake in the results: Jack Miller, a tollway authority board member; Maribel Chavez, the Texas Department of Transportation's Fort Worth engineer; and Bill Hale, the transportation department's Dallas engineer.
Some RTC members think the trio should abstain.
RTC members have been told they can't vote with an absentee or proxy ballot. Members can ask substitutes to take part in meetings on their behalf, but those subs can't vote. Nor can votes be cast by affidavit. The RTC usually meets one Thursday per month, and some members worry that not everyone can attend today.
If you go
The Regional Transportation Council will meet at 1:30 p.m. today to decide between two proposals to build the Texas 121 toll road.
Where: North Central Texas Council of Governments headquarters, Six Flags Drive at Randol Mill Road, Arlington
Public comment? No. RTC meetings are open to the public, but only staff and RTC members may speak.
More: www.nctcog.org or 817-695-9240
Read it here first: The Honkin' Mad traffic blog at www.star-telegram.com will keep you up to speed.
Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816
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