TxDOT District Engineer waves the old FHA threat-o-gram at NTTA
By Josh Hixson, Staff Writer
North Texas could owe the federal government nearly $300 million if the North Texas Tollway Authority is given approval to begin construction and tolling of the State Highway 121 project, according to Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and regional transportation officials.
Bill Hale, Dallas district engineer for TxDOT, said Wednesday that Federal Highway Administration officials expressed their concerns to TxDOT about the process by which Cintra and the NTTA were allowed to submit bids.
“If we do it the way it looks like we are, we may have to reimburse the feds for the money already in 121,” Hale said. “It is something (the Texas Transportation Commission) will consider because it has an impact on the amount of money in the project. TxDOT could hold the (North Texas) region responsible for the federal funds.”
Hale estimated $300 million in federal funds had already been invested in current construction of the SH 121 toll project.
Federal Highway Administration officials wrote TxDOT letters on April 24 and May 10, spelling out their worry that federal regulations were violated when the NTTA was allowed to submit a bid well after TxDOT had chosen Cintra.
“We are concerned that TxDOT’s actions could lead to violations of Federal law and regulations regarding competition in the procurement process. This could jeopardize TxDOT’s ability to use TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) funds on the SH 121 project,” stated the Federal Highway Administration in an April 26 letter. Michael Morris, director of transportation for the Regional Transportation Council (RTC), said he and RTC members were aware of the issue when the group voted to recommend the NTTA.
“I wanted to make sure the RTC had full knowledge of the federal government’s position,” Morris said. “The federal government is concerned that the state went ahead and properly procured a private-sector vendor. Then, sometime afterward, the public-sector vendor looked at the report and then competed.”
“We did not quantify the financial implications of that. There is a large range of potential implications,” Morris said.
Expecting the Texas Transportation Commission to approve the NTTA’s bid for 121 June 28 isn’t as simple as it sounds, Hale said.
“It isn’t as easy as saying ‘RTC wants to do this, so let’s go forward and do this,’” Hale said. “The (Texas Transportation Commission) wants everybody to have their eyes wide open during the process.”
Paul Wageman, chairman of the NTTA’s board of directors, said regardless of the federal government’s qualms, he expects the transportation commission to approve the NTTA’s bid.
“The (Texas Transportation Commission) may have some things they need to address. Mr. Hale mentioned the Federal Highway issue. But that is (TxDOT’s) issue,” Wageman said. “It is the region’s expectation that in the meeting (on June 28), a final decision will be made by the commission granting the project to the NTTA.”
The five Texas Transportation Commissioners, including chairman Ric Williamson, were unavailable for immediate comment Wednesday.
Commissioners Ted Houghton and Hope Andrade told The Dallas Morning News Tuesday they were wary of awarding the NTTA with a contract.
Randall Dillard, a spokesperson for TxDOT, said Wednesday that comments from Houghton and Adrade did not signal a shift by the commission in Cintra’s favor.
“I am a little bit disappointed that there is a projection that there is going to be a showdown here (in Austin) on the 28th. That implies a little more controversy than there actually is,” Dillard said. “My guess is that the commissioners haven’t even talked to (TxDOT) staff about the RTC meeting. The commissioners are not going to want to go on record and say this is what is going to happen on the 28th.”
Hale said TxDOT is working to reach an answer as to whether or not there will be any financial repercussions for North Texas before the Texas Transportation Commission meets next week.
Contact Josh Hixson at email@example.com
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