Thursday, July 24, 2008

"We are being impacted by forces beyond our control."

North Texas Tollway Authority delays decision on State Highway 161

July 24, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

The North Texas Tollway Authority said Wednesday that it will need more time to decide whether to build the highly anticipated State Highway 161.

Credit-market uncertainties mean it will be at least September before the agency decides whether to build the Dallas County road, NTTA executive director Jorge Figueredo said Wednesday. Just three months ago, Mr. Figueredo assured members of the Regional Transportation Council that the NTTA would make a decision by August.

NTTA board member Gary Base, chairman of the authority's finance committee, said the delay was not NTTA's fault.

"This has nothing to do with NTTA," he said. "The world we live in today has changed drastically on us. We are being impacted by forces beyond our control."

The road will be built whether or not NTTA passes on it. Construction is under way, and if NTTA doesn't build it, private companies are expected to compete for a contract to finish the road and collect its tolls for 52 years.

In April, NTTA agreed to the basic terms of the toll contract, which was valued at about $1.1 billion. That gave the agency 180 more days to decide whether to exercise its option to build the road.

But on Wednesday, an analyst from the Royal Bank of Canada told the NTTA that its options for securing the funds needed to pay for the road had narrowed since April, largely because of changes in the municipal bond market. Among other problems, ratings agencies have downgraded bond reinsurance companies, ruling out some bonds that had once been attractive to NTTA.

As a result, NTTA will consider applying for an infrastructure loan backed by the federal government, though state officials said Wednesday that competition for those loans is fierce.

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