Saturday, December 13, 2008

NTTA not ready to commit to building Trinity Parkway toll road

Trinity Parkway toll road's design moves ahead, but questions about project remain


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Development of the Trinity Parkway toll road remains on schedule, despite a series of new obstacles facing the North Texas Tollway Authority, toll officials and others said this week.
NTTA is poised to award roughly $30 million in contracts next week to begin designing the 9-mile toll road and its route through the Trinity River Corridor.

The preliminary design work should be completed by spring, and NTTA officials hope to have two key approvals for the project soon thereafter. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration must approve the project, and both remain at least months away from doing so.

Until those decisions are made in Washington, even the most basic facts about the Trinity Parkway remain all but impossible to state with certainty. How much will the road cost? What is the value of the toll revenue it will produce? Will it be completed by late 2013, as Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert has insisted?

An even more fundamental question – who will build the road, once it is approved – has yet to be answered with certainty, as well. NTTA has been shepherding the project through its early phases for years, but its leadership repeated again this week that until it knows how much the road will cost, and how much revenue it can expect from tolls there, it cannot commit to building it.

"This is not our project," NTTA board chairman Paul Wageman said. "Not officially, and not yet."

If the road is finally approved by the federal government, and NTTA ends up, as expected, building it, it will almost certainly need considerable help from regional partners, NTTA leaders said this week. "We are not going to be able to build this by ourselves," said Janice Davis, NTTA's interim executive director.

NTTA has always said it would need some help from the state or other players to build the road – help beyond the $84 million the city of Dallas has pledged to contribute. The Regional Transportation Council has held in reserve more than $200 million in state gas tax dollars to contribute, if necessary, once the project wins federal approvals.

But whether those funds will be enough to cover the gap between what NTTA can afford to pay and what the project will cost is another question whose answer must wait until at least the middle of 2009.

Mr. Wageman said the authority expects to use whatever it can borrow against the Trinity Parkway toll revenues, as well as millions more dollars secured against profits on its existing toll roads, to pay for the project. But with a rough price tag already set at $1.8 billion, Mr. Wageman said the project could cost even more than those totals could provide.

If that has always been the case, it will only be more likely in 2009. Already, NTTA has revised its revenue forecast for 2009 downward by about $25 million to account for modest declines in traffic on its toll roads. If the economy slows in Texas, drivers may begin avoiding toll roads in greater numbers. Federal statistics released Friday show that American drivers continue to drive less and less each month.
In addition, the municipal bond market has yet to fully recover from its collapse earlier this year, and many kinds of loans that were once available to NTTA no longer are – making financing for multi-billion-dollar public works projects more expensive, and in some cases impossible.

Still, TxDOT officials said the situation is far from critical. If the NTTA needs money to finance the Trinity, then the state will do what it can to provide it.
"This is the critical piece," said Bob Brown, TxDOT's deputy engineer in the Dallas District. "We'd find the money we need to get it built."

NTTA is expected to take one of its most visible steps toward doing just that next week, when it awards the preliminary design contracts. That work is critical because the Army Corps of Engineers, which must agree that the toll road won't impact its flood control efforts, has said it won't make a decision until engineers design at least 30 percent of the project.

The contracts probably would have been awarded last month, but questions raised by Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price over NTTA's commitment to use black subcontractors prompted the authority to review its procedures.

"I don't want to hold it up. I know the mayor wants to move forward. But what do we do?" Mr. Price asked. "We always hear the same such nonsense. 'We're working on deadline. We'll do it next time.' It's always a deadline when it comes to us."

NTTA says it took a month to review its bidding procedures and is comfortable with the way the design contracts have been handled.

Mr. Price has promised to keep watching as contracts for the rest of the work, some worth hundreds of millions of dollars, come on line.

Staff writer Rudolph Bush contributed to this report.

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