Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"I think we're at a very good place,"

NTTA confident Highway 161 toll deal will beat deadline

As deadline with state nears, agencies work on details for toll road plan

December 19, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The North Texas Tollway Authority's executive director said Wednesday that he expects his agency and TxDOT to reach an agreement on State Highway 161 before the state-imposed deadline of Friday at midnight.

None of the remaining issues appear to be deal breakers, said Jorge Figueredo, NTTA's executive director. "I really do expect us to agree and move forward," he said. "But still, it's not something I can guarantee."

That upbeat assessment was shared by Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments who has acted as a facilitator for most of the negotiations.

"We've had some 20 meetings, and I think we're at a very good place," he said. "They are down to two or three cost issues that together maybe are worth less than 5 percent of the total value of the project."

State Highway 161, a 10-mile road that runs from State Highway 183 to Interstate 20 in Dallas County, has long been touted as the next big toll road project in North Texas. Though it is not expected to generate anywhere near the $3.2 billion NTTA paid for the State Highway 121 contract, area officials have predicted the toll contract for Highway 161 could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. That money would be spent almost entirely in Dallas County.

Finding out how much the road is really worth involves deciding hundreds of details, ranging from traffic forecasts and revenue predictions, all the way down to expected costs for litter removal.

It is over those terms that NTTA and the state Department of Transportation's Dallas staff have negotiated for weeks. Last month, the NTTA announced that the lengthening negotiations could imperil the construction timetable for the highway, prompting Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson to abruptly set a deadline for Dec. 21. If an agreement is not reached by then, he said, Highway 161 will not be built as a toll road.

Mr. Morris' staff has since moved ahead with design elements of the road to ensure that, with or without tolls, Highway 161 is built on time. Contracts will be let in March, he said. Portions of the road will open in 2009, and the full road will open in 2011, he said.

Mr. Williamson said in an interview last week that the deadline is "absolutely" firm because the state has more than 80 other toll-eligible projects throughout Texas, and TxDOT can't afford to get bogged down in protracted negotiations over the first one on that list. His staff in Austin confirmed that on Wednesday.
For its part, NTTA says the deadline is not in keeping with the spirit of the law passed this year by the Legislature giving NTTA the right of first refusal for any toll projects in North Texas. Mr. Figueredo said if negotiations are not completed by midnight Friday, he and his staff will be willing to negotiate into next week and beyond if necessary.

"But we are fully committed to trying to meet this deadline," he said.

If the road does not proceed as a toll project, the region would probably have to dip into the reserves provided by NTTA's $3.2 billion payment for Highway 121.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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