Friday, August 10, 2007

"We're going to get a big check for a lot of money, and we need to make plans for how we're going to spend it."

Entities awaiting share of 121 pie

550 proposals offered for projects using funds as NTTA deal nears

August 10, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The North Texas Tollway Authority remains several days away from signing an agreement with the state to build and operate the State Highway 121 toll road, but local governments already have submitted hundreds of proposals for how best to spend the billions of dollars NTTA has promised to pay.

More than 50 North Texas entities – including cities, counties and transit authorities – have submitted more than 550 proposals to regional transportation planners. All hope to get a share of the $3.33 billion advance payment NTTA will make as part of its 50-year deal to build the road and collect its tolls.

Those requests include money for 95 highway projects, 17 traffic signal improvements, and 41 hike-and-bike projects, as well as hundreds of other ideas.

Together they would cost nearly $9 billion – a reality that did not dampen enthusiasm among Regional Transportation Council members ready to begin spending the money. The RTC, composed mostly of local elected officials, sets transportation policy in North Texas.

"One way or another, we're going to get a big check for a lot of money, and we need to make plans for how we're going to spend it," said John Heiman, an RTC member and Mesquite City Council member.

At its meeting Thursday, the RTC also expressed relief that U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has won a promise from federal transportation officials that they won't punish Texas for selecting NTTA to build Highway 121 over Spanish firm Cintra.

As recently as Tuesday afternoon, the Federal Highway Administration had said it was considering demanding that the state repay more than $200 million in federal funds already spent on Highway 121 because the selection of NTTA had violated its bidding rules.

On Thursday, Ms. Hutchison told a crowd of local officials and others in Irving that U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters promised her that Texas "would not lose a dime" in federal funding over its decision to go with NTTA.

Meanwhile, NTTA and RTC officials have said a project agreement giving final go-ahead to the NTTA could be signed as soon as Monday. All of the major terms have been agreed to – including how much NTTA will pay for collecting the Highway 121 tolls for the next 50 years, both sides said.

About $700 million of the $3.33 billion in payments by the NTTA has already been designated for projects subject to existing agreements. In addition, the RTC will probably set aside $833 million for future use, leaving only about $1.74 billion that will be available to pay for the hundreds of projects submitted by cities and counties last week.

Of those funds, the majority – $945 million – will pay for Denton County projects, since it will have most of the Highway 121 toll road within its borders. Collin County is tentatively set to receive about $529 million for projects.

Dallas County's hope

Only a tiny portion of the toll road will run through Dallas County, but it still stands to receive about $202 million for roadwork and other projects. With $1.6 billion in requests, officials in Dallas County – like their counterparts in the other counties – were anything but shy in seeking their share of the money. Tarrant County expects about $62 million for projects.

"We've been working for four or more years to get to this point, and now we are here," said Michael Morris, the RTC director.

The NTTA money has made possible the largest call for projects in North Texas history, but Mr. Morris said its significance goes beyond that. The region is emerging, he said, as one of the nation's best examples of how creative financing – like aggressively priced toll roads – can provide local governments funding without relying solely on state or federal dollars.

Turnpike extension

In other business:

• The RTC announced that contracts could be let as soon as January for a 9.9-mile extension of the Bush Turnpike. The new segment would run from Interstate 30 to State Highway 78, and include a bridge over Lake Ray Hubbard. In return for about $320 million in local and state tax dollars used for the project, NTTA has agreed to return about 20 percent of the tolls it collects on the new portion of the road. Mr. Morris said that could bring as much as $500 million for use in future North Texas road projects.

• The RTC announced it is in discussions with the NTTA to make all toll rates on any new toll roads consistent with the rates scheduled to be set for Highway 121. Those rates will start in 2010 at about 14 cents a mile and be raised every two years by about 2.75 percent. NTTA vice chairman Jack Miller said those plans would affect only Highway 121 and toll projects not yet completed. There has been no discussion about whether to increase rates on the Dallas North Tollway or the Bush Turnpike, Mr. Miller said.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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