Market based toll roads run amok in North Texas

Link to article here.

In case anyone needs reminding, we warned legislators this is EXACTLY what TxDOT would do. Lawmakers convinced themselves the Governor’s counterfeit moratorium bill, SB 792, and it’s horrific market valuation language, was the panacea to give them local control. We tried to tell lawmakers the veto power they were seeking cuts both ways; it still allows TxDOT to KILL a project if the local authorities don’t agree with TxDOT’s quick cash, “market value” figure as determined by Wall Street. “Market value” is code for how much money the government thinks it can make off its highway monopoly, resulting in tolls as high as they can get away with. Notice that the articles opine that if the two sides can’t agree on the maximum level of taxpayer gouging, that Hwy 161 will become a freeway. Heaven forbid, not a FREEway! Well, that’s what we the PEOPLE should demand!
Dewhurst, legislators to meet in Dallas to ease Highway 161 deadlock
Thursday, April 17, 2008
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and other key legislators are expected to meet behind closed doors in Dallas today to end a deadlock over State Highway 161 that has threatened to derail plans to toll the highway, a development that could cost North Texas more than $1.2 billion in road funds.

Regional leaders have insisted that the 10-mile Highway 161 in western Dallas County be built as a toll road. But negotiations between the North Texas Tollway Authority and the state transportation department over how much the toll contract is worth unexpectedly collapsed late Wednesday night, just hours before construction crews were to begin building the highway.

The Texas Department of Transportation has insisted for weeks that if no agreement was in place by April 16, the road could not be built as a toll road.

That prospect prompted howls of protest from local elected officials. Senate transportation committee chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, stepped in Thursday to initiate the unusual last-minute involvement of some of Texas’ most powerful elected officials.

“I am working hard to facilitate open conversation between all parties involved in the construction of SH 161,” Mr. Dewhurst said in a written statement about his efforts to resolve the impasse.

Gov. Rick Perry’s deputy chief of staff and his top transportation adviser, Kris Heckmann, will also attend. House Speaker Tom Craddick was not invited and will not attend, his spokesman said Thursday.

Today’s high-level meeting is designed to produce an agreement, said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, a transportation committee member who will also attend

“I think we need to sit around the room and have all the parties look eyeball to eyeball,” Ms. Shapiro said.

NTTA offer

Racing to beat the April 16 deadline imposed by TxDOT, NTTA last week offered what it called its best and final offer. Its proposal valued the Highway 161 project at $1.2 billion and, if accepted by state transportation officials, would have let the highway proceed as a toll project. The Regional Transportation Council voted 16-13 on Tuesday to support NTTA’s proposal.

But TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz rejected NTTA’s proposal late Wednesday night. Mr. Saenz ordered work on the highway to be delayed and extended his own agency’s deadline through the end of the weekend to provide time for negotiations.

That decision “pulled the rug out from under the region,” Ms. Shapiro said.

But on Thursday, Mr. Saenz said that decision was based on what’s best for the region, and department leaders said Thursday that NTTA’s proposal was for hundreds of millions of dollars less than what the toll contract was really worth. Leaving that money on the table, they said, would only make it harder for North Texas to reduce congestion on its traffic-snarled highways.

Mr. Saenz said he is prepared to continue negotiating with NTTA throughout the weekend, and said he looked forward to the meeting with senior legislators today.

“We have to meet the deadline to build the project, or yes it will have to be a gas-tax road,” Mr. Saenz said. “Maybe it can be resolved over the weekend. We are very close.”

Michael Morris, director of the Regional Transportation Council, said he canceled plans to be in Washington to attend today’s meeting. He said that his discussions with NTTA and TxDOT on Thursday had helped the parties resolve many of their differences and that he expects them to reach an agreement today.

NTTA chairman Paul Wageman said his agency’s offer will remain on the table all weekend, but he said its board will not renegotiate the terms of the proposal. He said TxDOT should unequivocally accept the proposal that has been endorsed by the RTC.

“We are here to do what is best for the region,” Mr. Wageman said. “If TxDOT wants to extend the deadline that it has imposed on this project, which we have said all along is an arbitrary deadline, then of course we will not let our offer lapse during that time. But I also want to be clear: Our proposal is our best and final offer. We made our best effort to get this project moving and to bring value to the region. We’re not going to renegotiate our terms.”

‘We need this roadway’

Ms. Shapiro said it’s long past time for the agencies to agree on how the road will be built.

“The three entities have got to come to an understanding,” she said. “Sixty-two meetings were held between TxDOT and NTTA to resolve market valuation, and they still haven’t resolved it. The more time this takes, the more we in this region are the losers. We need this roadway so desperately.”

Mr. Dewhurst and the others at today’s meeting cannot order either party to reach an agreement – as both TxDOT and NTTA are state entities directly answerable only to their governing boards.

Nevertheless, TxDOT finds itself in an unusually vulnerable position, with the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission set to give it a top-to-bottom look, and a Legislature mostly hostile to its push for private toll roads ready to reconvene in January.

Mr. Saenz said today’s meeting will probably determine how quickly his agency and NTTA can come to an agreement on Highway 161.

“It all depends on what happens tomorrow,” he said. “The crux is that the project needs to be completed on a certain time schedule. … If there is no resolution, then I guess [it won’t be a toll road]. But I am hoping that there will be a resolution. If we have to, we can extend our deadline a day or two.”


Link to article here.

Regional council could weigh in Thursday on Highway 161 toll road project’s next turn
Thursday, April 10, 2008
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News

The Regional Transportation Council will consider Thursday yet another twist in what has been six solid months of deadlocked negotiations over the State Highway 161 toll road.

Parties on both sides of the dispute – which involves a billion-dollar toll road and the prospect of traffic relief for thousands of drivers on State Highway 360 – say this week’s proposal by the North Texas Tollway Authority could be the breakthrough they’ve been waiting for.

Monday’s proposal by NTTA to value the road contract at about $1.2 billion, if accepted by the state Transportation Department, could clear a key legal hurdle that has stalled negotiations for months.

But despite those hopes – and they could still be dashed – about all anyone involved in the talks can agree on is that the process itself has been deeply flawed.

When negotiations over the toll contract began in earnest last fall, expectations from all sides were sky-high.

Fresh from a bruising but richly rewarding fight over State Highway 121, regional leaders saw the approximately 10-mile toll road as another golden egg. They hoped to see an upfront payment of as much as $1 billion to help build other roads.

State transportation leaders said the Highway 161 negotiations would prove that private-sector competition would create the billions Texas needs to pave its way out of increasingly bad traffic jams.

And for NTTA, the Highway 161 project was the first chance it would have to test-drive the new powers the Legislature had bestowed upon it last year. Those powers essentially have given the authority veto power on any toll road project within its service area.

“Everybody agrees that the process needs to be revamped,” said Dallas City Council member Linda Koop, who is also vice chairwoman of the transportation council. “This is not a process that really works too well.”

A frustrating process

No wonder.

The past six months have seen more than 60 meetings between NTTA and state Transportation Department officials, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal and consulting fees, and a series of firm deadlines set by the Transportation Department that were promptly ignored.

“I have been to I don’t know how many meetings,” said Bill Hale, director of the Dallas district of the Transportation Department. “And I just don’t think we were going to get anywhere.”

At fault, Mr. Hale, NTTA officials and others said this week, is the procedure established by the Legislature last year that means if NTTA or its counterparts don’t agree on hundreds of toll road conditions, then projects simply can’t proceed.

NTTA and its statewide counterparts say the Legislature was wise to give them what it calls primacy over private competitors. But even they said the forced negotiations have been doomed.

“I find it to be cumbersome, bureaucratic, argumentative and frustrating,” said Art Story, director of public infrastructure and tollways for Harris County.

Law faulted

State transportation officials have opposed the new law from the beginning, saying private companies can pay more for toll roads than public agencies. They agree with NTTA and the others that the negotiation process contained in the law has not worked.

Private companies and public entities will always see the value of a proposed toll contract differently because they operate with a very different set of financial assumptions, Mr. Hale said. “There are some inherent differences in the way both sides approach a project like that,” Mr. Hale said. “And if you are trying to negotiate, I think you will always end up with” deadlock.

But after six months of meetings, he said, the Transportation Department may support NTTA’s price tag anyway, or accept its alternative proposal that would lead to NTTA stepping away from the project altogether.

“I am pretty optimistic,” Mr. Hale said. “Sometimes, though, the best deal isn’t the right deal, and you end up with a good deal instead.”

Ms. Koop said the transportation council could vote on a recommendation, or table the matter at today’s meeting.

What’s certain is that all the parties will be back in Austin next year asking for changes.

“We need to have a robust conversation about what works and does not work,” she said. “We need to make some recommendations.”