"This road needs to be built now, so we can meet the deadlines and commitments to the region and to the Dallas Cowboys."
By GORDON DICKSON
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
ARLINGTON -- State agencies have finally agreed on business terms to get the proposed Texas 161 toll road project back on track and partly open by the time the Cowboys move to Arlington in 2009 -- and substantially completed by the 2011 Super Bowl.
After 23 sessions of tense negotiations during the past month, the North Texas Tollway Authority and Texas Transportation Department compromised late Friday to narrowly beat a state-imposed midnight deadline.
"We made a series of compromises that helped solve this thing," said Amadeo Saenz Jr., executive director of the state Transportation Department.
Texas 161, which has been planned for 50 years in Irving and Grand Prairie, is considered a crucial reliever route for Texas 360 in Arlington. The road is envisioned as a southwestern extension of the tollway authority's President George Bush Turnpike and a main route to the stadium from greater north Dallas.
Regional planners say they hope that it will be under construction by mid-2008.
The estimate at issue
About 10:30 p.m., the two agencies agreed on a crucial business term -- a probability line of 82.5 percent -- that over the next few months will be used to figure out how much money can be generated on the road through tolls to pay for other area road work. The result will likely be hundreds of millions of dollars for work across the region.
The probability line is essentially an educated guess that revenues generated by the road will be at or below 82.5 percent of its potential. The closer the percentage is to 100, the higher the risk that the agency building the road won't be able to cover its costs.
The tollway authority initially wanted the line set at 50 percent, while the Transportation Department favored 95 percent.
Consulting firm Wilbur Smith Associates has conducted a traffic and revenue study and will make projections for Texas 161 by Jan. 18. The tollway authority will then have several months to decide whether to accept the project.
If the authority rejects it, the Transportation Department can farm it out to one of four private companies interested in building the road.
However, tollway authority Executive Director Jorge Figueredo said late Friday that he is "confident the value will be such that our board will elect to take it."
Early this year, the Transportation Department was midway through the process of farming out the toll road to private developers when state legislators passed a law giving the Plano-based tollway authority first dibs on toll projects in Tarrant, Collin, Dallas and Denton counties.
If the tollway authority takes the project, it would control Texas 161 for 52 years.
Saenz said the state will likely get less money by letting the tollway authority build the road instead of a private firm.
"Are we sure we're getting the total highest value? I don't know yet," Saenz said. "The important part is, this road needs to be built now, so we can meet the deadlines and commitments to the region and to the Dallas Cowboys."
No matter who builds the road, any further delays would be a disservice to Grand Prairie officials and residents who have supported the project despite a federal environmental lawsuit in the 1980s and toll road opposition in the 1990s, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
The Texas 161 frontage roads and bridges would be built by 2009, according to the Regional Transportation Council's plan to speed up the project. The main lanes from Texas 183 to Interstate 30 would be open by 2011.
The main lanes south of I-30 would open by 2012.
The tollway authority has also committed to break ground on Fort Worth's Southwest Parkway in 2008 and is in the early stages of planning Texas 170.
Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816
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