DALLAS - The North Texas Tollway Authority is still on track to build the $1.2 billion State Highway 161 after the Regional Transportation Council accepted the NTTA's "last and final offer" for valuing the toll road project.

By a narrow vote of 16 to 13 Tuesday, the RTC, a transportation planning consortium of governments in the North Texas region, signaled its preference for the NTTA's offer over private bidders for the project.

However, authority will not make a final decision on whether to build SH 161 until June at the earliest, chairman Paul Wageman said. The NTTA must first get assurances from the rating agencies that taking on the additional debt will not prompt another downgrade.

The RTC's recommendation now goes to the Texas Transportation Commission, which supervises the Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT typically follows the recommendations of the TTC.

Setting a market value for toll projects is required under a new law, SB 792, passed by the Legislature last year. If the NTTA and TxDOT cannot agree on the market value, TxDOT can seek bidders from the private sector.

Jose Lopez, president of the North American division of Spanish developer Cintra Concesiones Infraestructura de Transporte, told the RTC his company would value the project at $1.7 billion.

Cintra, which is waiting in the wings to bid on SH 161, last year lost a more valuable project, the $5 billion State Highway 121, to the NTTA. The SH 121 project had already been awarded to Cintra by the RTC and the TTC in March 2007 when state legislators intervened, asking that the NTTA be given another chance to bid on the project it had passed up in 2006.

Taking on SH 121 meant the authority had to triple its debt to nearly $5 billion, prompting a ratings downgrade to A-minus from Standard & Poor's. Its rating is A2 from Moody's Investors Service and BBB-plus from Fitch Ratings. The NTTA, which had premised its financing for SH 121 on remaining in the single-A category, dismissed Fitch from rating its recent $3 billion of long-term revenue bonds.

The NTTA and TxDOT have been unable to agree on the market value of the SH 161 project that will run north to south through the western suburbs of Dallas, relieving congestion on another state highway and funneling traffic to the Dallas Cowboys new stadium in Arlington. Regional officials want SH 161 at least partially open by the time the new stadium opens in 2009.

While the authority has signed contracts to operate SH 121 for 50 years, it proposes to operate SH 161 in perpetuity. A private firm's contract would be limited to 52 years.

To complete the 10-miles SH 161, the NTTA would provide up-front payments to the RTC of $298 million for use on other transportation projects in the region. For SH 121, the authority paid $3.3 billion in up-front payments.

Some local officials said the NTTA should preserve its debt capacity for numerous other projects it has planned in the area, leaving SH 161 to private developers. SH 161 is one of several proposed toll projects not subject to a two-year, state-mandated moratorium on private toll roads.


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