Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"Most states around the country are in the maintenance business... we're in the capacity-building business."

NTTA borrows $3.49 billion for toll project

State Highway 121 money may first go to State Highway 161

November 21, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The North Texas Tollway Authority borrowed $3.49 billion Tuesday as it prepares to make the second-biggest upfront cash payment for a toll project in U.S. history.

The money, secured by short-term notes that will be replaced by long-term bonds early next year, will be used to pay nearly $3.3 billion to the state of Texas. In exchange, NTTA will build and operate State Highway 121 as a toll road, running about 26 miles through Denton and Collin counties, with a tiny segment in Dallas County.

NTTA is required to make the payments to the state by Nov. 30, officials at the toll authority said Tuesday.

The money – second only to Indiana's receipt of $3.8 billion in return for granting a private firm a 75-year lease to collect tolls on the Indiana Toll Road – will be available for immediate use to build North Texas roads.

The NTTA also will pay nearly $700 million in remaining construction costs for the road. Local governments have already submitted hundreds of proposals for projects to be paid for out of the funds, though final selections by the North Central Texas Council of Government's transportation council won't be made until early next year.

The regional council initially planned to save about $800 million of the NTTA money as a kind of endowment, with only its interest income to be spent on road projects. Instead, that $800 million will probably be used as a reserve fund to lend money to projects that are ready to go but are awaiting funding.

One of the first uses for the Highway 121 money could be on State Highway 161 in Dallas County, a road that long has been touted as the second-richest toll road in North Texas.

The Texas Transportation Commission has said that NTTA and Texas Department of Transportation's Dallas-area engineers have until Dec. 21 to reach an agreement on how to value the road as a toll project. If that deadline is missed, the road would be built as a free road, using money from NTTA that had been earmarked for other uses, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the Regional Transportation Council.

Mr. Morris is acting as a facilitator as negotiations between NTTA and TxDOT continue. On Tuesday, he and NTTA officials said the talks would continue throughout the holiday weekend and into next month.

The talks resumed Monday, following last week's decision by Ric Williamson, chairman of the state transportation commission, to impose the Dec. 21 deadline. No agreement has been reached, both parties said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Mr. Morris said, the region owes its flexibility on how to proceed with Highway 161 entirely to the success of the Highway 121 project. The upfront money NTTA is about to pay for that road will pay dividends on projects for years to come, he said.

"Most states around the country are in the maintenance business," Mr. Morris said, citing the increasingly strapped highway coffers in state capitals everywhere. "But thanks to this innovative approach in Dallas-Fort Worth, we're in the capacity-building business."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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