DALLAS - A proposed bond-financed bailout of the Houston Ship Channel Bridge project will apparently not face a final vote next week as expected.
The Texas Bond Review Board last month said it planned to make a final decision at its July 23 meeting, but this week official said they are still studying alternatives to the $210 million debt restructuring.
The restructuring, first proposed by the Texas Turnpike Authority in April, is intended to avert a default in 1996 on the junk-rated junior lien debt with which the authority has filled revenue gaps for the project.
"At this point, I do not expect any action on the 23rd," said Paul Williams, executive assistant to the review board's chairwoman, Gov. Ann Richards. But, he added, "I don't anticipate that it will drag out."
He said the five-person board had no specific schedule for making a decision, but that a final approval or rejection of the turnpike's plan is likely within 60 days.
On Monday afternoon, the board again met with turnpike officials and a large contingent of advisers to respond to questions. At the meeting, board members continued to discuss alternatives to the debt plan.
While the board has ruled out seeking legislative and constitutional amendments that would allow the Texas highways department to provide a cash infusion for the project, members are still studying other ideas for avoiding a default.
One plan still under consideration is involvement by the Harris County Toll Road Authority in buying and operating the project. Board members say local officials have mixed opinions on that idea.
A new alternative being studied by the board was a plan from Dillon, Read & Co, to create a local bonding authority that would buy the bridge from the turnpike authority and operate it along with new stretches of toll road designed to increase traffic.
"The purpose of the meeting was to look at broadening the project to include additional tollway," said Tom Pollard, executive director of the Bond Review Board. "Rather than looking at it as a specific proposal from Dillon Read, we are looking at the concept of broadening the project as a possible solution."
"I was intrigued by what the Dillon Read proposal seemed to offer," said Mr. Williams. "I think what we have with these other ideas is a need to develop them more fully."
Officials at Dillon Read declined comment, saying they are still developing their proposal.
Bob Peterson, senior vice president at First Southwest Co. of Dallas, the authority's financial adviser and spokesman, said the Dillon Read proposal differs from a privatization plan offered during the two years the turnpike and its advisers have been studying solutions."
"It's a whole new subject," he said. "The turnpike authority hasn't proposed selling the bridge and no one has offered to buy it. This is the first time."
Mr. Peterson said there could be legal obstacles to the Dillon Read proposal. For instance, under current law turnpike projects become property of the state when the debt is retired.
"There is a question of whether the turnpike can sell the bridge," he said. "When the bonds are defeased, the bridge is supposed to go back to the state."
Turnpike officials continue to insist that their proposal to have PaineWebber Inc. and Lehman Brothers underwrite $90 million of low-grade senior debt and $120 million of unrated junior bonds is the best solution.
Two years ago, the authority said it expected to default on junior debt sold in 1985 to cover earlier revenue shortfalls in the project.
Although neither side will publicly discuss it, officials with the turnpike authority and bond review board said they have become frustrated with the protracted discussion of how to avert a default.
The authority and its advisers, are frustrated over seeing their plan second-guessed and delayed, sources said privately.
Some accuse the board of overstepping its authority.
"It seems like the same questions keep coming up over and over," said one source close to the authority. "You would think by now that they would have the answers they are looking for."
But for the bond review board, the process is a part of its function to make sure issues are acting in the best interest of the state, bondholders, and ultimately ratepayers who will pay tolls to retire debt on the bridge.
"The turnpike authority has become real defensive," said a state official. "They were not even trying to hid that on Monday."