AUSTIN — Hoping to let the Pentagon know that El Paso's planned Inner Loop will be completed for the expected growth of Fort Bliss, state transportation officials on Wednesday authorized the signing of a contract worth up to $350 million to build the city's largest-ever highway project.
"We've sent a signal to the (U.S.) Department of Defense. We're going to build it," said Ted Houghton, transportation commissioner and El Paso businessman.
The seven-mile Inner Loop freeway project is considered a make-or-break part of the Pentagon plan to bring nearly 23,000 soldiers and thousands more family members to Fort Bliss and El Paso.
The Texas Transportation Commission unanimously approved an order that will allow the commission's executive director to complete negotiations on the contract with a civil construction company, JD Abrams, to build the freeway.
The commissioners also decided to send military officials in Washington a letter reaffirming their dedication to completing the project before soldiers begin arriving at Fort Bliss.
"This signal is exactly what we need," said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso.
The commissioners had originally planned to approve the completed contract with JD Abrams on Wednesday, but they ran into last-minute technical glitches in negotiations, Houghton and JD Abrams Vice President Bill Burnett said.
"The deal is complete other than working on some very, very minor language," Burnett said.
By early Wednesday, though, commissioners had decided to postpone the vote on the contract for another month.
They decided to take action after El Paso lawmakers expressed concern that delaying the vote would send a bad signal to Washington officials, who have said the Inner Loop project is key to moving thousands of soldiers to Fort Bliss.
"We just could not take that chance," said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. "We had to have this approval. We had to have this done today."
Because the final contract was not ready, the commission gave the director permission to complete the negotiations as long as the contract remains within certain parameters. The total contract may not exceed $350 million, Texas cannot agree to repay Abrams more than $35 million each year, and the state cannot take more than 20 years to repay Abrams.
The Inner Loop is the first project for which Texas will use a method of financing that allows the private contractor, JD Abrams, to pay upfront for most of the construction costs. The state will then reimburse the company based on how many drivers use the road.
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said it was about time the commission moved forward on the project, which has been under serious discussion for more than a year.
"You can't just keep telling everybody one more month, one more month, one more month," Pickett said. "We've been hearing this for a long time."
The loop is expected to handle traffic from residential construction at Biggs Army Airfield and increasing Northeast El Paso traffic.
The first phase of the project is on track to be done by the summer of 2008, Burnett said.
The entire project is on schedule to be completed in 2010 or 2011, which coincides with the arrival of the 1st Armored Division being relocated from Germany to Fort Bliss as part of the overseas realignment.