With Feds Loaning "LBJ Express" Project $850 Mil, Expect Delays Beginning Spring 2011

It's been a long while since we've made mention of the New LBJ Freeway -- like, since February 2009, when the Texas Department of Transportation announced that an international consortium called LBJ Development Partners -- which includes Spanish-based Cintra, French-based Meridiam Infrastructure Finance and other local firms -- would be handling construction on the $2.7 billion redo. But yesterday there was a significant development of which I've seen little mention made:

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced on Tuesday it would be loaning the project $850 million. That's in addition to $615 million in tax-exempt private activity bonds that LBJ Infrastructure Group -- formerly LBJ Development Partners -- sold to private investors. Says U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in yesterday's release, "The project will improve livability for area residents. It will reduce congestion, which will allow people to spend more time doing what they enjoy, and it will improve air quality and enhance safety."

I called TxDOT spokesman Tony Hartzel, the former News transpo writer now handling communications for LBJ, to see if yesterday's announcement gives us a better idea of when construction's set to begin. He says LBJIG now hopes to start in early 2011 and wrap it up by 2015, give or take. (Update: More like, 2016. See jump for explanation.) He also directed me to a brand-new Web site LBJIG has set up for "the new LBJ Express," where I found the video above with the early '80s porntastic sound track.

"This is an important step in the long process to get it underway," says Hartzel of the USDOT's announcement. "We expected LBJ Infrastructure Group to get the funding, and we're happy they've done so in such a difficult economic market."

So this is how the funding breaks down: The Regional Transportation Council -- meaning the Texas Department of Transportation, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Dallas County and the city of Dallas -- will contribute $496 million. LBJ Infrastructure Group's kick-in is $664 million in private equity, with Dallas Police and Fire Pension System ponying up 6.6 percent of that. Then there are those government loans and private bonds.

Those investments, as well as the USDOT's loan, will be paid back via the 13.3 miles of managed lanes that'll be a significant piece of the new highway -- with prices ranging from 15 cents to 55 cents per mile per car, depending upon how congested LBJ is at the time.

Lara Kohl at Trinity Infrastructure, which is handling construction on the project, tells Unfair Park the project will more than likely be done in 2016 -- they're anticipating a five-year overhaul. And they're not sure when dirt will start turning because they're not done with "right of way and utlility activities." The result of those look-sees will determine when construction will begin. At which point, I tell her, LBJ's gonna be a mess, right?

"You use the word 'mess,' and I won't try to sugarcoat it," she says. "It'll be a very, very challenging mess for those five years. What we're trying to help people understand is it'll be challenging and you'll have to bear with us as this is a tremendously challenging process. But the light at the end of the tunnel is a guaranteed rate of travel through the use of those managed toll lanes. And we'll have eight reconstructed main lanes, and have the continuous frontage roads."

Below is the brand-new LBJ Freeway fact sheet Hartzel sent moments ago.LBJ Summer 2010

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