Friday, August 24, 2007

"Deadline became unworkable as an expected environmental clearance from the U.S. government failed to materialize."

Deadline for 121 deal gets extended

NTTA says it's ready to start work on project once the feds approve it

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Once facing a looming deadline, the North Texas Tollway Authority has been given more time to reach an agreement with the state to build State Highway 121.

The Texas Transportation Commission voted unanimously Thursday at its meeting in Austin to cancel a previous order that had threatened to give the contract to another party if NTTA could not reach an agreement by Aug. 29.

That deadline had become unworkable as an expected environmental clearance from the U.S. government failed to materialize, officials from the Texas Department of Transportation said.

They told the commission they could not sign an agreement with NTTA until the federal government completes its review of the Highway 121 project. NTTA officials said Thursday they expect the clearance by September.

In extending the deadline, the commission also voted unanimously to cancel its original agreement with Spanish builder Cintra, the firm that had initially been selected to build Highway 121.

NTTA announced later Thursday that it has signed a project agreement to build the road and is waiting only for TxDOT to sign it once it receives the federal clearance.

Commission chairman Ric Williamson and other commissioners said they thought the Legislature had tied their hands by demanding that NTTA be given the job if it offered a better deal than Cintra.

NTTA has promised to pay $3.33 billion upfront for the contract, compared with Cintra's offer of $2.88 billion.

But that extra money – sought after by local governments already sorting through proposals for spending it – comes with a price for North Texas drivers, Mr. Williamson said. If NTTA has overestimated the traffic the road will get, it could find that it has overpaid. If so, it's possible that it would have to raise the toll rates above the limits outlined in Cintra's proposal.

"It deeply concerns me that the toll payers in North Texas could be overpaying," Mr. Williamson said.

NTTA board chairman Paul Wageman said his agency is close to beginning work on the project.

"We are nearing the final execution of State Highway 121 project agreement, and I thank all of our partners who have worked tirelessly and expeditiously to complete it," Mr. Wageman said. "The NTTA looks forward to delivering the upfront payment to TxDOT and [regional transportation officials] in the near future."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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