Saturday, December 22, 2007

"There are more than 20 other potential toll projects in North Texas. Three more –including the Trinity Parkway– will be negotiated relatively soon."

Agreement keeps Highway 161 toll plan moving

Terms don't require NTTA to build road; valuing deal is next

December 22, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The State Highway 161 toll road project avoided a death blow Friday when the North Texas Tollway Authority reached an agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation over how to value the 52-year contract to collect tolls on the 10-mile road.

The two agencies agreed on hundreds of business terms that together will determine the price NTTA will be asked to pay for the tolling contract.

The agreement does not obligate NTTA to build the road, which will run through Grand Prairie and help relieve traffic on State Highway 360 and at the new Cowboys stadium in Arlington.

If NTTA decides against operating the road, the state could ask private companies to do so, a scenario TxDOT officials say would produce even bigger dividends for the region.

But Friday's agreement does mean that the road will almost certainly be tolled, a huge priority for local transportation officials and leaders in Grand Prairie desperate for an alternative route to relieve congestion on Highway 360.

Scheduled for completion in time for the 2011 Super Bowl, Highway 161 has long been touted as the region's next big toll road after the State Highway 121 project in Collin, Denton and Dallas counties.

"I am very, very happy," NTTA executive director Jorge Figueredo said after an agreement was reached at 10:28 p.m. Friday, just 92 minutes ahead of a midnight deadline that, had it been missed, would have scuttled plans for the toll road entirely.

Amadeo Saenz, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, said the agreement didn't give TxDOT everything it wanted, but that the compromise was healthy for the agency and would result in Highway 161 getting built sooner.

"The important part is this road needs to be built now," he said.

The next step is for the agencies' financial advisers to use the agreed-upon business terms to determine by Jan. 18 how much the toll contract is worth. State law then gives NTTA and TxDOT 90 days to accept the figure or agree upon a new one. Once a figure is accepted, NTTA will have another six months to decide whether it wants to build the road.

But yesterday's deadline was the critical step in ensuring that the road will be tolled – even if NTTA ultimately decides against operating it itself.

Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, mediated the talks, which stretched over 23 meetings since Nov. 15 – and over 13 hours on Friday alone.

On Friday night, he said he hopes the project will produce as much as $910 million – far less than the nearly $4 billion, counting construction, that NTTA agreed to pay in return for the Highway 121 contract. But the money from Highway 161 is critical to other projects, including adding six new tolled high-occupancy vehicle lanes to the LBJ Freeway, Mr. Morris said.

There are more than 20 other potential toll projects in North Texas, and three more – including the Trinity Parkway – that will be negotiated relatively soon, Mr. Morris said.

Mr. Morris and the leaders of TxDOT and NTTA said they were hoping the next discussions proceed more smoothly.

"It's got to be easier next time," Mr. Figueredo said.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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