The Texas Transportation Commission on Wednesday approved a deal for the North Texas Tollway Authority to take over the Southwest Parkway and Texas 161 toll roads, but not before including last-minute language that could spoil the agreement and potentially delay both projects.
The commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, unanimously agreed to financially help the tollway authority build Texas 161. In doing so, the commission put up the state’s gas tax fund as collateral, which the tollway authority could then tap into to pay debts on both projects, at a maximum of $4.118 billion.
Southwest Parkway would be a 28-mile toll road from Interstate 30 near downtown Fort Worth to U.S. 67 in Cleburne, where the project is known as Chisholm Trail. Texas 161 would run parallel to Texas 360 in Arlington and is considered a key route to Cowboys Stadium. The Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail and Texas 161 projects would be built jointly and share revenue until both were paid for.
But in approving the measure Wednesday, the commission included language that would require the tollway authority to pay a fee of up to $12 million a year beginning in year 11 of the deal, if by that time the state’s gas taxes were still needed to guarantee debt. The tollway authority also would have to pay interest on money owed to the transportation department. Last week, tollway authority chairman Paul Wageman of Plano expressed concern that such language could “blow up” the agreement.
The drama now shifts to Friday, when the North Texas Tollway Authority board will meet in Plano and decide whether to accept the state’s deal. The effort to decide which agency should build the roads, each of which has been planned for decades, has now dragged on for more than three years.
During Wednesday's commission meeting, the vote was unanimous, even though transportation commissioner Bill Meadows of Fort Worth unsuccessfully tried to remove the language requiring interest payments.
“It’s a partnership between two public agencies,” Meadows said. “The whole notion of having a revenue price, a revenue sharing fee, is not appropriate.”
But commissioner Ned Holmes of Houston, who pressed for the last-minute change, said that not charging fees and interest to the tollway authority “is basically free money for 34 years. Would that be fair to the rest of the Fund 6 contributors around the state? I don’t think it is.”
The commission meeting was held in Austin and broadcast live online at www.txdot.gov.