Thursday, October 16, 2008

Gas taxes to subsidize Texas 161 toll road

State gas taxes to back loans for Texas 161 toll road

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

GARLAND — Loans to build the Texas 161 toll road east of Arlington will be backed by state gas taxes, as officials scramble to keep the project going despite a worldwide credit crisis.

The North Texas Tollway Authority accepted a proposal Wednesday by the Texas Department of Transportation to open a line of credit — a toll equity loan — for the $1.44 billion project, using the state’s $6 billion highway fund as collateral. The 12-mile road parallel to Texas 360 in Irving and Grand Prairie will be a vital connection to the new Cowboys stadium in Arlington.

Meeting at Garland City Hall, the tollway authority agreed to contribute up to $400 million of its own equity for Texas 161, and for all 28 miles of the proposed Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail connecting downtown Fort Worth to Cleburne.

The tollway authority and Transportation Department also agreed to waive a complicated process of establishing a market value for Southwest Parkway, a process that caused delays and tension between the agencies in the past. Also, the department will no longer be required to use gas-tax proceeds to build Southwest Parkway interchanges at Interstates 20 and 30 — instead, those connections can be paid for with tolls.

The tollway authority’s board of directors approved the deal, despite concerns from some members that the loan would reduce the state’s commitment of gas-tax dollars to the Dallas-Fort Worth region.

TxOT has its own funding pressures, but this commitment will not affect any other transportation project," Transportation Department financial adviser Gregory Carey of Goldman Sachs & Co. assured the tollway authority board.

Meanwhile, $272 million earmarked for other Dallas County projects has been temporarily diverted to the Texas 161 project, so construction could begin this year and be at least partly done when the Cowboys move into the new stadium in 2009.

The tollway authority will repay that money as part of a $458 million payment to the region for use on other projects.

Texas 161, which will connect Airport Freeway to Interstate 20, was once considered a plum project.

But traditional forms of bond funding have dried up in recent weeks because of the economic crisis.

The commitment to build Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail could have been handled separately, but tollway authority board Chairman Paul Wageman of Plano said, "It’s really important to us to have a hard asset on the ground in Tarrant County."

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

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