Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley: "There isn't any chance in heck that we're going to let this road not be built as a toll road."

Regional Transportation Council backs tollway authority's plan for Highway 161

April 16, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

The Regional Transportation Council on Tuesday endorsed a plan by the North Texas Tollway Authority that should keep the State Highway 161 toll road project moving forward.

By a vote of 16-13 and after a long and often confusing debate, the council recommended that the Texas Department of Transportation accept a $1.2 billion price tag for the toll road contract put forward by the NTTA last week. The move keeps NTTA on schedule to develop the road and could bring the region as much as $298 million in upfront payments for use on other roads.

The agreement that won the RTC's backing Tuesday also satisfies an April 16 deadline imposed by the state last month and will allow construction crews already hired to begin work by Thursday.

"I think everyone is just tired of messing with this road and wants it to just get built," said Bob Brown, TxDOT's deputy engineer for the Dallas district.

The State Highway 161 project is an approximately 10-mile road in Dallas County that has long been promised to Grand Prairie as a key reliever route for State Highway 360 traffic.

NTTA's proposal, however, does not obligate the authority to build the road. It merely helps clear a key legal hurdle and allows NTTA and TxDOT to agree on how much the toll contract should be worth.

State law stipulates that if NTTA and TxDOT can't agree on a contract's value, then the road can't be built as a toll road, giving NTTA a powerful bargaining tool. NTTA now has six months to decide whether it wants to do the project.

NTTA executive director Jorge Figueredo said Tuesday that the NTTA probably would make its decision by June.

The RTC's vote was not binding on anyone, but in recent years TxDOT's leadership has increasingly deferred to the wishes of regional policy councils. The Texas Transportation Commission voted 4-1, for instance, to accept the RTC's recommendation that the State Highway 121 contract be taken away from Spanish builder Cintra and given instead to NTTA, despite the commission's clear preference for the private firm.

But on Tuesday, Jose Lopez, president of the North American division of Cintra, said TxDOT would be hard-pressed to accept NTTA as the builder for Highway 161. He said its offer is substantially lower than what a private firm would have paid to build the road.

"At least one market player – us – would be willing to pay $1.7 billion for the same terms as proposed by NTTA," said Mr. Lopez, who attended Tuesday's meeting. "That's a huge discrepancy. Can TxDOT really follow that [RTC] recommendation?"

State law, however, may give TxDOT little choice. For starters, a contract with a private firm would be capped at 52 years, whereas NTTA's proposal would let it keep the road forever.

Beyond that, a decision by TxDOT to reject NTTA's offer could mean that the road would not be built as a toll road at all, given toll road restrictions passed last year by the Legislature. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said that was unacceptable.

"There isn't any chance in heck that we're going to let this road not be built as a toll road," said Mr. Whitley, who was among about a dozen council members who favored an alternative proposal put forward by RTC staff that would have left some room for negotiation over terms of the proposal.

Council members rejected the staff alternative, however, after NTTA chairman Paul Wageman said his board would not negotiate any of the key terms stipulated in its offer setting the value of the toll road at $1.2 billion.

"This is our last and final offer," he said.

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