Thursday looms as a crucial moment in the fight over local primacy in toll road construction. At an Austin hearing, the Texas Highway Commission will decide whether to award the contract for the lucrative Route 121 to Cintra or the North Texas Tollway Authority. The THC has said that it wants these decisions to be made locally, but it gets the final say. Already the battle has become clouded by an apparent conflict of interest by Price Waterhouse, which evaluated the competing bids to build the road. Price Waterhouse said that Cintra's bid was superior to NTTA's. Then the news broke that Price Waterhouse has done work for Cintra in Europe; I am also told they were also partners with Cintra in the Trans-Texas Corridor. This is what has bothered me about the whole toll road scheme all along: The sums of money involved are so huge that the temptation to cheat is hard to resist.
Notwithstanding Price Waterhouse's siding with Cintra, the Regional Transit Council for North Texas chose NTTA, so the question is whether TxDOT will overrule the RTC or respect their vote. John Carona, the chairman of the Senate Transportation committee, told me this afternoon that he expects the Highway Commission to approve NTTA conditionally. NTTA will still have to verify its ability to obtain financing. Whether the Highway Commission is sincere about letting the local folks choose their builder will become clear when the Highway Commission reveals its conditions for NTTA to proceed. If the window to obtain financing is narrow--say, 45 days or less--then it would appear that the Commission is favoring Cintra. Still.
Carona expressed surprise that the Regional Transportation Council voted overwhelmingly for NTTA. His own count had showed that the vote was close. Tarrant County doesn't particularly like NTTA, which is Dallas-based and has a history of cherry picking projects itself. But TxDOT showed up to argue for Cintra, and that irked some of the voting members. Xenophobia played a part, too: Many of the Council members are elected officials, and they did not want to vote for a furrin' company. NTTA's supporters insist that the toll authority's bid is substantially superior to Cintra's by as much as a billion dollars in up-front money.
Whatever happens tomorrow, you can be sure of this much: Tomorrow is the beginning of the efforts to protect local primacy that were at the heart of Senate Bill 792, the transportation compromise. And this promises to be a long struggle, because no one thinks for a moment that the governor and the Highway Commission are not in Cintra's corner 100%.
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