DALLAS -- Dallas County officials said yesterday they would proceed with a $400 million acquisition of two Texas Turnpike Authority projects, even as a similar deal between the authority and Harris County appears stalled until next year.
Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson said the county will continue to negotiate the terms of a revenue bond-financed acquisition of the Dallas North Tollway and Mountain Creek Lake Bridge projects by using a never-tried franchise arrangement. Under that structure, a county-created corporation would take control of the projects but would not legally own them.
Meanwhile, Harris County officials said a similar $218 million proposal to acquire the financially troubled Houston Ship Channel Bridge would wait until next spring, when officials expect the Texas Legislature to give the turnpike board the authority to sell its projects outright.
The turnpike board voted unanimously yesterday to proceed with negotiations and to support legislative efforts that would allow the agency to sell its projects.
At the same time, Turnpike Authority Chairman Luther Jones said the agency may revive an earlier plan to restructure the Ship Channel Bridge debt while proceeding with plans to transfer the project to Harris County.
The proposed refunding was tabled last summer after Harris County took an interest in acquiring the bridge, but not before state officials questioned the economics of the transaction.
Jones said a refunding may be likely only if it does not affect the sale of the project. "Harris County has said they don't have any objection to that, as long as it doesn't increase their cost," he said. "We've asked them to put that in a letter to us."
Harris County Judge Jon Lindsay said the county has suspended negotiations with the turnpike staff because he prefers direct ownership of the troubled project.
While not represented yesterday at a meeting of the Texas Turnpike Authority in Dallas, Harris County officials rebuffed local press reports that the plan to take control of the project was dead.
"We're interested, but we're not interested in doing it under the franchise agreement," Lindsay said in a telephone interview. However, he admitted, the county is frustrated with slow-moving negotiations over the terms of acquiring the bridge.
"They should remember that this is a buyer's deal, not a seller's deal," Lindsay said. "They keep asking for concessions out of us, but they should remember that we are taking a bad situation off their hands."
Turnpike officials defended the negotiations, saying the deal wound be mutually beneficial. "We're committed to whatever will work as long as it protects our interests in transferring that asset to Harris County," Jones said.
Asked if Harris County had expressed frustration with the process, he said, "Judge Lindsay has not told me that."
Harris County officials had proposed taking over the project as a means to assure local control and help the Turnpike Authority avert a default in 1996 on unrated junior debt. To do so, the county has hired Dillon, Read & Co. in Dallas to handle the transaction that would involve a mix of low-grade senior debt and unrated junior bonds.
While no specific timetable for the deal has been set, underwriters say it will probably be next March before a sale can go forward.
By then, Lindsay expects state lawmakers to have passed legislation that gives the turnpike explicit authority to sell its bond-financed projects.
Dallas County officials say they don't intend to wait for that to happen. A team headed by Goldman, Sachs & Co. has been selected to underwrite bonds that, officials said, could be sold as early as January.
In an interview, Judge Jackson said he feels comfortable with a deal that would not give Dallas County direct control of the project. However, he said, any agreement to buy the two projects -- which are financially strong -- would include provisions to give the county direct ownership if the law is changed.
Even while continuing efforts to sell its projects, the turnpike board yesterday pushed forward with long-term plans to make the Dallas North Tollway a 30-mile project. The board authorized negotiations with Collin County and Frisco, Tex., over plans to build a nine-mile extension of the turnpike in the last half of the decade.
At present, the authority expects to complete a second extension of the project by mid-1994.
"The board is committed to keeping its word to sell the projects, but they can't stand still," a turnpike official said. "This is long-term planning and we can't afford to stand still."