Friday, April 18, 2008

"Sixty-two meetings were held between TxDOT and NTTA to resolve 'market valuation,' and they still haven't resolved it."

Dewhurst, legislators to meet in Dallas to ease Highway 161 deadlock

April 18, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and other key legislators are expected to meet behind closed doors in Dallas today to end a deadlock over State Highway 161 that has threatened to derail plans to toll the highway, a development that could cost North Texas more than $1.2 billion in road funds.

Regional leaders have insisted that the 10-mile Highway 161 in western Dallas County be built as a toll road. But negotiations between the North Texas Tollway Authority and the state transportation department over how much the toll contract is worth unexpectedly collapsed late Wednesday night, just hours before construction crews were to begin building the highway.

The Texas Department of Transportation has insisted for weeks that if no agreement was in place by April 16, the road could not be built as a toll road.

That prospect prompted howls of protest from local elected officials. Senate transportation committee chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, stepped in Thursday to initiate the unusual last-minute involvement of some of Texas' most powerful elected officials.

"I am working hard to facilitate open conversation between all parties involved in the construction of SH 161," Mr. Dewhurst said in a written statement about his efforts to resolve the impasse.

Gov. Rick Perry's deputy chief of staff and his top transportation adviser, Kris Heckmann, will also attend. House Speaker Tom Craddick was not invited and will not attend, his spokesman said Thursday.

Today's high-level meeting is designed to produce an agreement, said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, a transportation committee member who will also attend

"I think we need to sit around the room and have all the parties look eyeball to eyeball," Ms. Shapiro said.

NTTA offer

Racing to beat the April 16 deadline imposed by TxDOT, NTTA last week offered what it called its best and final offer. Its proposal valued the Highway 161 project at $1.2 billion and, if accepted by state transportation officials, would have let the highway proceed as a toll project. The Regional Transportation Council voted 16-13 on Tuesday to support NTTA's proposal.

But TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz rejected NTTA's proposal late Wednesday night. Mr. Saenz ordered work on the highway to be delayed and extended his own agency's deadline through the end of the weekend to provide time for negotiations.

That decision "pulled the rug out from under the region," Ms. Shapiro said.

But on Thursday, Mr. Saenz said that decision was based on what's best for the region, and department leaders said Thursday that NTTA's proposal was for hundreds of millions of dollars less than what the toll contract was really worth. Leaving that money on the table, they said, would only make it harder for North Texas to reduce congestion on its traffic-snarled highways.

Mr. Saenz said he is prepared to continue negotiating with NTTA throughout the weekend, and said he looked forward to the meeting with senior legislators today.

"We have to meet the deadline to build the project, or yes it will have to be a gas-tax road," Mr. Saenz said. "Maybe it can be resolved over the weekend. We are very close."

Michael Morris, director of the Regional Transportation Council, said he canceled plans to be in Washington to attend today's meeting. He said that his discussions with NTTA and TxDOT on Thursday had helped the parties resolve many of their differences and that he expects them to reach an agreement today.

NTTA chairman Paul Wageman said his agency's offer will remain on the table all weekend, but he said its board will not renegotiate the terms of the proposal. He said TxDOT should unequivocally accept the proposal that has been endorsed by the RTC.

"We are here to do what is best for the region," Mr. Wageman said. "If TxDOT wants to extend the deadline that it has imposed on this project, which we have said all along is an arbitrary deadline, then of course we will not let our offer lapse during that time. But I also want to be clear: Our proposal is our best and final offer. We made our best effort to get this project moving and to bring value to the region. We're not going to renegotiate our terms."

'We need this roadway'

Ms. Shapiro said it's long past time for the agencies to agree on how the road will be built.

"The three entities have got to come to an understanding," she said. "Sixty-two meetings were held between TxDOT and NTTA to resolve market valuation, and they still haven't resolved it. The more time this takes, the more we in this region are the losers. We need this roadway so desperately."

Mr. Dewhurst and the others at today's meeting cannot order either party to reach an agreement – as both TxDOT and NTTA are state entities directly answerable only to their governing boards.

Nevertheless, TxDOT finds itself in an unusually vulnerable position, with the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission set to give it a top-to-bottom look, and a Legislature mostly hostile to its push for private toll roads ready to reconvene in January.

Mr. Saenz said today's meeting will probably determine how quickly his agency and NTTA can come to an agreement on Highway 161.

"It all depends on what happens tomorrow," he said. "The crux is that the project needs to be completed on a certain time schedule. ... If there is no resolution, then I guess [it won't be a toll road]. But I am hoping that there will be a resolution. If we have to, we can extend our deadline a day or two."

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