Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"Until Austin lives up to its responsibilities, North Texans should expect to drive on far more toll roads, financed with private money or not."

Moving Forward: State should approve NTTA's Highway 121 bid

June 20, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

After hours of intense focus on endless charts and graphs, after a series of catty comments, emotion-laden speeches and the suspense of a vote, someone broke out into song, as if in relief.

"Kum-baya, my Lord ..."

Scattered voices joined in among regional transportation officials. They had just finished grinding through a politically charged decision Monday on endorsing a bid for the State Highway 121 tollway project.

In short order, we want to hear all voices harmonize on setting and meeting the region's transportation priorities. The North Texas Tollway Authority, having won the bruising Highway 121 competition (so far), bears special responsibility.

Exhibit No. 1 is the east-west division in the vote by which the Regional Transportation Council endorsed the NTTA proposal over a private consortium headed by the Spanish company Cintra.

It's notable that most of the dissenting votes came from Tarrant and Denton counties. NTTA clearly has work to do to demonstrate to skeptics that it will work cooperatively to attack the region's worst traffic congestion and not just cater to the Collin County boom.

NTTA's victory meant persuading commissioners that the agency's belated proposal was worth rejecting a binding, relatively risk-free contract ready to go with Cintra. Some were avowedly unwilling to take the unprecedented move of doing business with outsiders with a profit motive – a move we would have supported for its bottom-line security.

But we won't fault those who said voting for NTTA represented faith in North Texas' future. They placed their bets on higher-than-forecast traffic counts in the Highway 121 corridor, which would ultimately mean more revenue than Cintra would provide.

The next chapter in the Highway 121 drama will be written next week by the Texas Transportation Commission, which must either accept or reject the RTC's preference on the project. We hope it's the former. Commission Chairman Ric Williamson has stressed the importance of local control in carrying out transportation policy. He will have the chance to reinforce that message.

It's important to remember, however, that Cintra made a good-faith bid and had all but wrapped up the contract before state lawmakers stepped in.

This private company has been the lightning rod for critics who have lambasted tolls in general and what they call "selling our highways to foreigners." That's a naive way of looking at the necessity of enticing private companies for road building.

The proper perspective is recognition that lawmakers have watched idly while the state's gasoline tax – stuck at 20 cents a gallon for 15 years – falls further behind in meeting transportation needs. Until Austin lives up to its responsibilities, North Texans should expect to drive on far more toll roads, financed with private money or not.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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