NTTA says it can't fill Trinity toll road cost gap of nearly $1 billion

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by By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:45 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 2:48 PM

The Trinity Parkway could cost close to $1 billion more than the North Texas Tollway Authority can afford to pay to build it, officials say.

The enormous gap means that if the parkway is built, taxpayers would pay more than half of the 10-mile road's cost, even as drivers will be left paying tolls on the highway for generations.

It's far from clear where the additional money will come from. For the first time, NTTA officials say the agency no longer will be able to help bridge the gap.

But top transportation leaders in North Texas say there are enough other funding sources that they remain convinced the road will be built and on time.

"That's a big number," Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert said, "but there are a lot of buckets [of funding] to dip into. We're absolutely committed to seeing this project through."

The controversial toll road is expected to cost about $1.8 billion - easily twice the amount of debt the toll authority says future tolls on the Trinity would support.

"That road is not going to generate billions" of dollars in toll revenue, said Janice Davis, interim executive director at NTTA. "It's basically a bridge, not an extended toll road, and we're not going to be able to recapture its construction costs. We are not going to be able to bond even a billion dollars."

The road has been in development for more than a decade, and NTTA never expected to be able to borrow enough against future tolls to pay for all of it. But it has suggested that it would help close much of the gap with funds from its other toll roads. With toll transactions down, credit markets in turmoil and an increasingly expensive roster of roads NTTA has promised to build, that is no longer the case, Davis said.

NTTA has $400 million to contribute to new stand-alone projects, but most if not all of that money is committed to helping finance the State Highway 161 toll road in Dallas County and Southwest Parkway in Tarrant County, she said.

"If there is something else floating around that would be available for the Trinity, it's not going to be big," she said. "$400 million is all we have available - and that includes everything."

Nonetheless, she said her agency remains committed to doing everything it can to deliver the Trinity Parkway.

Many uncertainties

Much about the toll road remains uncertain.

While Davis said she expects the agency to be able to borrow less than $1 billion against the toll revenues, she and others point out that no final revenue estimates will be completed until a final route is selected.

And that can't be done until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration sign off on the project and the route - a process that will take at least until late this year.

A draft environmental review was supposed to have been released for public comment late last year but is already behind. A spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration in Washington said Thursday that the agency hopes to have a draft of the environmental review available "in the near future," mentioning only its "quite complex" nature.

Meanwhile, NTTA is facing a deadline for completion by 2014, thanks to an aggressive push by Leppert. To meet the deadline, the NTTA has pushed ahead on design, betting that the federal agencies will sign off on the route local officials prefer, the $1.8 billion path through the Trinity levees.

"A project like the Trinity Parkway is different than anything we have ever done before," said Gene Rice, the Trinity project manager for the corps' Fort Worth office. "It's got its own learning curve for everybody. It is such an unusual use of the flood plain inside a federal flood-control project."

He said corps headquarters at the Pentagon has issued special guidance for how to proceed with the review of the project. A special team of 12 of the corps' top engineers from across the country has been assembled to provide oversight, Rice said.

"I honestly believe there is an engineering solution to everything," Rice said. "But it's just a matter of how much money and time you want to spend to solve it."

Contingencies or not, this much is clear: The Trinity Parkway project is going to cost more, and NTTA will be able to contribute less than officials thought during the hard-fought referendum campaign in November 2007 when voters voted to keep the highway inside the levees.

Still hopeful

Dallas City Council member Linda Koop, who also leads the Regional Transportation Council, said there's no reason for pessimism.

"They haven't even done a traffic and revenue study, and they can't for at least another 12 months," Koop said. "Until then, we are just going to continue to be optimistic. The design is moving forward."

But Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, who led the charge to try to keep the toll road out of the Trinity River corridor in 2007, said the big numbers don't surprise her.

"None of this is new to anyone who was paying attention to the toll road debate," she said. "The proponents were absolutely certain that this would be paid for no matter what the cost. Now we see that NTTA is not so certain. They were certain about the time line, and now that seems not so certain."

Finding nearly a billion dollars to build the Trinity Parkway may sound like a show stopper. But it's manageable, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments and one of the project's fiercest supporters during the 2007 election.

"I believe NTTA will build it, and we'll find funding from five or six sources that are available," Morris said. "You say, 'How can you be such an optimist?' Well look around and you'll see five or six major projects all under construction at the same time, and if I had told you that would be the case a few years ago, you would have put a cartoon in your newspaper about me. But we've managed it, and I think we'll do the same with this project, too."

The Trinity project has been a huge priority for transportation leaders mainly because it could serve as a traffic reliever during badly needed construction work on Interstates 35E and 30 in downtown Dallas, something Bill Hale, TxDOT's Dallas district engineer, has said is essential.

But Hunt said she remains convinced that the project is not worth the money.

"Transportation dollars are tight right now, and we are really going to have to be thoughtful about how we are going to spend money on this project. Is this project worth spending a billion dollars of our money on?"

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