"Some Dallas-Fort Worth officials say they are uncomfortable with what they say is a financial shell game that's taking place to seal the deal."
By GORDON DICKSON
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
ARLINGTON -- Negotiations to turn over construction of Southwest Parkway and Texas 161 to the North Texas Tollway Authority are on course to meet a Feb. 28 deadline, but some Dallas-Fort Worth officials say they are uncomfortable with what they say is a financial shell game that's taking place to seal the deal.
A $300 million funding gap remains, and to help fix that problem, $91 million in Regional Transportation Council funds meant for other Metroplex road projects would be diverted to the Southwest Parkway/Texas 161 deal.
But some area elected leaders, particularly those from the Dallas area, say they're worried that the deal is potentially a roadblock to the region's ability to perform other work for years to come.
Dallas County Commissioner Maurine Dickey said those concerns are being glossed over in a furious attempt to get the deal completed by the deadline.
"I feel we're being held hostage," Dickey told members of the Regional Transportation Council, Dallas-Fort Worth's official planning body, during a monthly meeting Thursday in Arlington. "I've never been on a board where I've been so absolutely pressed to make a decision on an issue without being able to discuss it."
Despite those concerns, the 43-member RTC agreed on a voice vote Thursday to allow funds to be used as a bargaining chip.
Southwest Parkway, a proposed 28-mile toll road from downtown Fort Worth to Cleburne, and Texas 161, which is under construction in Grand Prairie and Irving, are being developed as toll roads because for decades the state has been short of the cash needed to build them as freeways.
In Cleburne, the Southwest Parkway project is known as the Chisholm Trail.
Texas 161 runs parallel to Texas 360 in Arlington and is considered a main route to Cowboys Stadium.
The Texas Transportation Commission agreed last month to use the state's gas taxes as collateral for debt issued to build the roads, though a rival agency, the North Texas Tollway Authority, would control the project. The two roads will share toll revenue -- as if they were a single project -- until both are fully paid for.
That agreement all but assured that Southwest Parkway, which has been on the planning books for four decades, would be under construction by year's end and open by 2013.
All that remains is negotiating the final details of the deal.
But that's proving to be a tricky proposition because, even with the state co-signing debt for the road, there is still a $300 million gap between the cost of building the roads and the amount of revenue the roads can raise.
One of the key negotiators is Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
Morris' latest proposal involves taking $91 million in funds that the RTC expects to receive beginning in 2014 and using tollway authority debt to convert the funds to cash so it can be used immediately for construction.
That would mean $91 million less for the RTC to spend on other Dallas-area projects in 2014. Morris said, however, that funds from state-issued Proposition 14 bonds could make up the difference. The Legislature has authorized the sale of Proposition 14 bonds to build roads today and repay the debt with future gas tax revenues.
The deal would also include language requiring the tollway authority to raise tolls on Southwest Parkway if necessary to satisfy debts, which means motorists could be asked to pay more for using the road if the project hits any fiscal snags down the road.
Several RTC members said it's important to take the painful step of including their $91 million to ensure that the tollway authority -- and not the state Transportation Department -- takes the project.
If the tollway authority determined that the project wasn't feasible, the alternatives would be to have the state build the project as a state-run toll road or to find a private partner to enter into a comprehensive development agreement -- or CDA. Otherwise, construction could be postponed again.
But state lawmakers have repeatedly said they want the Transportation Department out of the toll business.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley worries that if the tollway authority deal falls apart, Southwest Parkway would not get built.
"You're running the risk of being at the mercy of the Legislature," he said, "and whatever their feelings are about CDAs and toll roads."
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