DALLAS — With some misgivings, the North Texas Tollway Authority has agreed to add the $1.4 billion State Highway 161 toll road to its rapidly expanding system.
In an 8-to-1 vote on Friday, the NTTA board accepted the project, even though board members expressed doubts about the authority’s growing role as the primary transportation provider in the region.
With the NTTA’s debt load soaring to $7 billion, board members said the agency’s ability to take on future projects will be severely limited.
The SH 161 tollway that is partially built on the west side of Dallas will be financed as a stand-alone project with an equity contribution of up to $400 million from the NTTA system.
The tollway is the first in which revenues from the entire system will not be pledged to back the SH 161 bonds.
Other funding includes a Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan of about $400 million from the Federal Highway Administration, and $330 million from the Regional Transportation Council, a consortium of North Texas governments that distributes transportation funds.
Working through the RTC, the NTTA board and its director, Paul Wageman, dodged a potential deal-breaker in the terms of a loan guarantee from the Texas Transportation Commission.
In a statement before the vote, Wageman objected to the terms approved by the TTC just one day before the NTTA vote. However, the RTC agreed to cover the cost of a fee included in the commission’s loan guarantee.
The loan guarantee is the first of its kind from the state.
Under a new transportation law, regional toll authorities such as the NTTA have taken on a larger share
of highway construction and management that had previously been handled by the Texas Department of Transportation.
No region of the state has more aggressively pursued toll projects than North Texas.
The loan guarantee from the TTC should allow the NTTA to issue bonds with ratings in the double-A category, Wageman said.
The authority’s board received letters from its rating analysts at Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service outlining the impact of taking on the SH 161 project under the loan guarantee.
Under the board’s rules, only two votes were needed to reject the 11.5-mile project, which is largely built and expected to generate revenue in excess of debt-service commitments.
Wageman cast the final vote after a day of sharp questioning of staff experts and RTC director Michael Morris.
“The project has positive revenue projections, is located in an area experiencing rapid growth, provides a much-needed reliever route to SH 360 in Tarrant County, and is a natural extension of one of our premier facilities, the President George Bush Turnpike,” Wageman said after the vote.