Friday, June 29, 2007

Fort Worth Star-Telegram coverage of Texas Transportation Commission SH 121 decision

Public agency gets toll road
By GORDON DICKSON - Fort Worth Star-Telegram - Thu, Jun. 28, 2007
The Texas Transportation Commission has agreed to let the North Texas Tollway Authority build the Texas 121 toll road in Denton and Collin counties, rejecting a bid from the private Spanish firm Cintra.

The Plano-based tollway authority has committed to pay the North Texas region $3.3 billion for use on other transportation projects.

Now that the state commission has decided the tollway authority's plan is the best value, the next step is for the tollway authority to negotiate a project contract with the Metroplex's Regional Transportation Council, a process expected to take a month or two. The authority would have another 45 days to close its financial arrangements.

The commission voted 4-1 Thursday afternoon to approve the plan during a meeting in Austin. The dissenter was Ted Houghton of El Paso, who wanted the negotiations to include a member of the Texas Department of Transportation. "I'm against us being on the sidelines," he said.

But commission chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford preferred that TxDot employees take a step back and let North Texans work out the deal themselves. "Right now, RTC and NTTA are all getting along and they've all agreed as to how they want to do this." Williamson is a longtime champion of decentralizing TxDot's powers so that metro areas may decide road-building priorities on their own.

Williamson also said he would prefer that his agency's employees stand at arm's length from the process, to avoid being unfairly criticized for trying to manipulate the results. In recent months, TxDot officials have been accused of forcing the tollway authority out of the Texas 121 bidding so that private companies such as Cintra could have the project.

"I've had it with toll operators, and House and Senate members, and former commissioners accusing good state employees," he said.

In addition to paying $3.3 billion to the region, most of it up front, the tollway authority has agreed to add five new toll road projects to its existing Dallas-area toll road system within five years. Three of those five projects are in the western Metroplex: The Texas 121T (aka Southwest Parkway) extension to Cleburne, Texas 360 in Mansfield and Texas 170 in the Alliance area. Texas 161 in Grand Prairie, a reliever route for overused Texas 360 in Arlington, is also under consideration.

But still unknown is whether the commission's decision may expose the state to lawsuits from either Cintra or two other companies that originally competed for the project. Cintra originally won the bid, with a promise to pay $2.9 billion, but lawmakers intervened and demanded that the tollway authority get another chance.

The Federal Highway Administration later determined that intervention violated federal procurement rules, making Texas 121 toll road ineligible for future federal funds. The tollway authority doesn't intend to use federal funds going forward, but $236 million in federal funds has already been spent on the road and it's unclear if Texas will be asked to refund part or all of that amount.

If such a refund were necessary, it would reduce the overall amount of highway funding available for the Metroplex.

Check out the Honkin' Mad traffic blog for more details about the decision.

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