Friday, April 18, 2008

North Texas politicians squabble over Texas 161 toll road conversion

Agencies try to reach Texas 161 deal

Apr. 18, 2008

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

ARLINGTON -- State lawmakers will intervene in a dispute over the proposed Texas 161 toll road in Grand Prairie to ensure that the project is at least partly built before the planned 2009 opening of the Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington.

Officials from the North Texas Tollway Authority and the Texas Transportation Department, who are in a drawn-out dispute over the value of the 11-mile toll road, will meet today at the office of state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, in an attempt to compromise. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is also expected to attend.

Meanwhile, North Texas officials expressed frustration Thursday that Texas 161, a sorely needed reliever route for Texas 360, is bogged down by state-level politics.

"That road has tremendous consequences for us, and yet we can't do anything about it," Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck said Thursday morning during a transportation forum sponsored by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.

Many of the key players in the Texas 161 debate attended the forum at Tarrant County College Southeast Campus, a few miles south of the proposed road. The event was organized before the tollway authority and Transportation Department arrived at their stalemate.

The debate

Many officials had believed the dispute was over. Last week, Transportation Department officials appeared to be content with the tollway authority's "final" proposal for Texas 161, valuing the road at $548 million above the construction cost.

The money would be paid to the state for use on other Metroplex road projects. Under the proposal, the tollway authority would keep the road in perpetuity and make it part of the Dallas-area tollway system.

Transportation Department officials now want to limit the deal to 52 years or get a bigger upfront payment from the tollway authority. If the road were leased to a private developer, the North Texas region could get as much as $1.5 billion over 52 years -- the true market value, according to Amadeo Saenz Jr., the Transportation Department's executive director.

The agencies also disagree on other issues, including interest rate risks and revenue-sharing provisions if traffic on the road exceeds projections.

Placing a true market value on the road, rather than settling for the tollway authority's figure, ensures that the public gets the biggest payoff possible from the project, Saenz said during an interview in Arlington.

The market value is important because if the tollway authority ultimately decided not to build the project, private developers would use that value to determine how much they were willing to pay for the road, he said.

Finding a solution

Jorge Figueredo, executive director of the North Texas Tollway Authority, told the forum crowd Thursday that he wants to mend fences with the Transportation Department. "One way or another -- us, TxDOT, somebody -- that road is going to get delivered."

Meanwhile, contractor Williams Brothers of Houston has been hired to start work on Texas 161, but crews have been told not to turn dirt until the interagency dispute is settled. The delay is adding tens of thousands of dollars a day to the project.

Arlington chamber President Wes Jurey expressed optimism that a compromise is near: "Although the perception is we're miles apart, we're really only inches apart."

Carona said state lawmakers will take steps to rewrite laws so a third party is used to negotiate values in future projects. That proposal will be among many changes in transportation law discussed during the 2009 legislative session, which will begin in January, he said.

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

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