Thursday, July 03, 2008

Texas tollers' dispute over cash leads to bottleneck

Tollway officials may pay $26 million to end dispute with TxDOT


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

PLANO — The North Texas Tollway Authority will consider paying $26 million to the Texas Department of Transportation to end a dispute that threatens to delay the widening of Northeast Loop 820.

Bidders for the roadwork, which would widen the four-lane bottleneck to six free lanes and four toll lanes, have been critical of the project because the tollway authority would collect the tolls but isn’t required to post a bond guaranteeing that the developer will be paid.

The $26 million would be placed in a special account that would be tapped only if the tollway authority is unable to perform its duties. In that event, toll collection would be turned over to the Transportation Department, which is already capable of collecting tolls electronically.

The compromise with the Transportation Department will be discussed during the tollway authority’s next board meeting July 16.

The Loop 820 work was originally supposed to begin in 2005, and is now scheduled to be under contract by the end of this year as part of a project known as the North Tarrant Express. The project also includes new toll and free lanes on Interstate 35W in north Fort Worth and on Texas 121/183 in Bedford, Euless and Hurst.

State law mandates that the tollway authority collect tolls on Metroplex roads, even those built by private developers. The developer is supposed to manage the roads and receive toll revenue for 52 years. But the tollway authority isn’t required to post a bond guaranteeing that the developer will be paid.

Related project

The compromise would also resolve a $52 million dispute with the Transportation Department over the value of the Texas 121 toll road north of Grapevine.

Last year, the tollway authority paid the state $3.2 billion for the right to collect tolls on Texas 121 for decades to come — and the Transportation Department can now spend that money on other highway and rail projects in North Texas. But the two sides were still $52 million apart on estimates of the long-term value of interest payments.

A $26 million payment by the tollway authority would represent half of the disputed amount, requiring the two sides to essentially meet halfway, said tollway authority Executive Director Jorge Figueredo. It would simultaneously end the North Tarrant Express and Texas 121 disputes between the agencies, he said.

Transportation Department Executive Director Amadeo Saenz suggested the compromise Monday, Figueredo said.

Tollway board Vice Chairman Victor Vandergriff of Arlington scolded the tollway staff for not offering a compromise of its own, and instead waiting for the state Transportation Department to come forward.

"We can’t just say no," Vandergriff said. "We have the ability to do something positive. We did . . . but the other side came up with it first."

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

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