Wednesday, June 20, 2007

State not sold on NTTA's bid for 121 toll road

Commissioners raise doubts about toll plan OK'd by regional panel
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER - The Dallas Morning News - Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Two of five Texas Transportation Commission members said Tuesday that they can't guarantee they will ratify Monday's decision by local leaders to recommend the North Texas Tollway Authority for the State Highway 121 toll project.

Commissioners Ted Houghton of El Paso and Hope Andrade of San Antonio said awarding the contract to NTTA could leave the state vulnerable.

Mr. Houghton said NTTA's proposal is subject to more unknowns than the bid from its rival Cintra, the Spanish construction firm.

"Cintra's offer was a firm bid, an iron-clad contract that we could have closed on yesterday and they would have handed us a check," he said. "NTTA's is not a firm bid; it's merely a proposal. And so now we will have to negotiate."
Commission members get the final say on who will build the coveted 26-mile toll road in Collin and Denton counties. But the Regional Transportation Council sent them a strong message Monday with its 27-10 vote in favor of giving the lucrative contract to the NTTA.

The commission's June 28 agenda will include an action item on the Highway 121 bid, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. But what that item will say – and whether it's a final decision or simply an agreement to negotiate with NTTA – is not clear.

Still, commissioners are eager to work with the RTC in North Texas, Ms. Andrade said. But she said she first must be convinced that the NTTA proposal is the best deal for Texas and doesn't expose the state to a lawsuit from Cintra.

"I want to first make sure that we don't place any risks on the state," Ms. Andrade said. "If there was any negative impact on the state, we would have to bring the region together to tell them we need to figure out how to do this."

Commissioners Ned Holmes of Houston and Fred Underwood of Lubbock could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford declined to say what weight he will give the RTC's decision.

"Now that we have an action item before us, it's inappropriate for me to comment as it might be interpreted as how I intend to vote," he said.

Cintra's effect

Commission members and Transportation Department spokesman Randall Dillard said the regional vote will be given great weight in Austin. They argued that NTTA's win was a victory, not a setback, for Gov. Rick Perry's campaign to attract private companies willing to invest in building Texas roads.

"The world changed, and history was made," Mr. Dillard said. "And the RTC decision proves that competition has played, and can play, a vital role in the building of Texas roads."

Mr. Houghton was more explicit. The fact that NTTA was willing to propose paying billions of dollars upfront for the road is a direct result of Cintra's involvement in the bidding process, he said.

"Competition has worked," said Mr. Houghton, who has previously criticized the NTTA. "We've won. And all you have to do is look at history. Tell me, how else would we have been able to pull in $2.8 billion, or whatever the final amount will be, without bringing in the free market?"

NTTA proponent

Mr. Houghton and his fellow commissioners were appointed by Mr. Perry, a Republican. But the governor's eagerness to award Cintra the Highway 121 project met opposition from within his own party.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, opposed awarding the contract to Cintra and helped smooth the way for NTTA's bid. Mr. Carona now says he agrees that Cintra's bid resulted in a better proposal from the NTTA.

"The governor and the ... [transportation commissioners] did the right thing by introducing the free market into the process," Mr. Carona said.

But he said Mr. Williamson promised him that the regional vote would be decisive on the Highway 121 project.

"The commissioners are honorable men and women," Mr. Carona said. "And the chairman of the commission told me, in no uncertain terms, during the last session that the wishes of the RTC will be honored. I believe he is a man of his word.
"Certainly, if the Transportation Commission chose to ignore the overwhelming wishes of RTC, then that would not bode well for future relations between the Legislature and the Texas Transportation Commission.


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