Updated version of the story ...
AUSTIN – A deal approved Thursday all but assures the proposed Southwest Parkway toll road in Fort Worth will be under construction later this year.
The Texas Transportation Commission agreed to use the state’s gas taxes as collateral on two projects that are being developed jointly – Southwest Parkway, and Texas 161 in Grand Prairie – even though those projects are toll roads.
The move, approved Thursday morning by a voice vote, could tie up highway funds normally used on non-toll projects for many years. Nonetheless, it strongly improves the chances that the first eight miles of Southwest Parkway from Interstate 30 near downtown Fort Worth to Dirks Road on the city’s southwest side will be under construction by the end of the year and open by mid-2013.
Officials from the Texas Department of Transportation and tollway authority agreed that the two roads would be developed together, and would share revenue until each was paid for.
"I believe there is less risk doing the projects together than doing the projects separately," said state Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, who spoke to the commission along with state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.
Still, Thursday’s action was a preliminary step, and over the next 30 days both sides must hammer out specific legal language to make the agreement stick.
A key unresolved question is whether the agreement can be structured to pass muster with bond holders, who may not approve of combining finances for the two projects, and may insist that their investments be restricted to one road or the other.
Another issue is that the Texas Department of Transportation wants an assurance in writing that the tollway authority will release the state’s gas tax fund – Fund 6 – as collateral at the earliest possible point. Commissioner Ned Holmes of Houston expressed doubt that the two sides could agree on language that satisfies that concern by Feb. 28, the tollway authority’s deadline for deciding once and for all whether to take over the Texas 161 project.
Texas 161 runs parallel to Texas 360 in Arlington and is expected to be a main path to Cowboys Stadium, especially for fans coming from north Dallas.
"I don’t know how you’ll be able to do that in the next 30 days," Holmes said. "It’s been going on for some time now."
Still, with the state’s highway fund as a backstop, the North Texas Tollway Authority expects to get a much higher credit rating on the bond market, and as a result will enjoy a better interest rate – and will raise about $400 million more for the project through bond sales than would have otherwise been possible.
The long-term risk for Texas taxpayers is that, even with the state’s help, the North Texas Tollway Authority still has a $300 million gap in how much the two projects are expected to cost versus how much money the Plano-based tollway authority can raise.
At anytime during the next four decades, if either toll road project struggles financially, the state may have to dip into its gas tax reserves to help the tollway authority pay its debts. The arrangement – a toll equity loan – could tie up millions of dollars a year in highway funds that otherwise would be spent on non-toll projects.
Transportation commissioners originally opposed taking that risk, but ultimately decided to go along with it. The alternative, they noted, was to not build Southwest Parkway.
State lawmakers in recent years have severely restricted the Texas Department of Transportation’s ability to build its own toll projects – especially if it involved private developers. In Dallas-Fort Worth, the tollway authority, which is a public agency, has first dibs on any project, according to state law.
"The tools that have been taken away from this agency need to be returned, so we can be creative in our delivery," transportation commission chairwoman Deirdre Delisi of Austin said. "There’s only so much capacity we have. It ties our hands for future projects."
Meanwhile, the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s official planning body, is already searching for other funding sources to close the $300 million gap, transportation director Michael Morris said.
One option is securing a federal transportation infrastructure – or TIFIA – loan, although that’s considered a long shot. Another option could be state infrastructural bank loan, although that source of money likely wouldn’t be available until September at the earliest.
"We’ve got 30 days to close a $300 million gap," Morris said.
GORDON DICKSON, 817-390-7796