Monday, October 20, 2008

"At the 11th-and-a-half hour, I still don’t have an understanding of this agency’s cash flow needs."

The Road Warrior: Worries abound over tollway commitments


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

Arlington businessman Victor Vandergriff worries that the North Texas Tollway Authority has already bitten off more than it can chew.

Last week, the tollway authority worked out a deal with the Texas Department of Transportation to keep the Texas 161 project financially afloat. The tollway authority will be allowed to use the state’s gas tax-supported highway fund as collateral in loans needed to build the $1.44 billion toll road, parallel to Texas 360 east of Arlington.

The move became necessary after the global credit market collapsed, making it next to impossible to borrow money using traditional bond market tools.

Vandergriff is a tollway board member, and along with the other eight directors he voted in favor of the deal — reluctantly.

Before the vote, Vandergriff asked Executive Director Jorge Figueredo how much money the authority would need to build the projects it has already promised during the next 12 months.

Figueredo did some quick math and responded that $312 million would be needed for construction of the President George Bush Turnpike eastern extension, Texas 121 Tollway, Lake Lewisville bridge and other ongoing capital improvements.

Another $130 million must be borrowed for two new projects: Texas 161, and the Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail from downtown Fort Worth to Cleburne.

That adds up to a $442 million gap. Tollway officials can only hope and pray the credit market gets its legs back — quickly. If it doesn’t, the tollway authority could be forced to swallow its pride and shut down some projects midjob.

Vandergriff warned that he had an uneasy feeling about pressing ahead.

"The whole government approach is to keep spending and worry about where the money will come from later," Vandergriff said. "I’m disappointed that at the 11th-and-a-half hour, I still don’t have an understanding of this agency’s cash flow needs."

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

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