Monday, July 01, 2002

"Perry envisions, a pair of toll roads bypassing the Metroplex would be built within 10 years."

Tolls not always the best route

June 1, 2002

Gordon Dickson, Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Copyright 2002

Texans are no strangers to toll roads.

From 1957 to 1977, they willingly paid a few nickels for access to the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike, which cut the travel time between the two cities in half. When the road's debt was paid, the tollbooths were removed, and it was converted into Interstate 30.

But, Texans' patience for paying tolls may be tested in the coming years.

In Austin last week, residents expressed shock at reports that a 48-mile ride on the planned Texas 130 tollway from Georgetown to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport would cost $6. The road is scheduled to open in 2007.

The $6 fee amounts to 12.5 cents per mile - about 20 percent higher than the fees paid by motorists on the Dallas North Tollway.

And officials warn that Texas 130 is a precursor of higher tolls to come statewide.

Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, who last week approved the financial plan for Texas 130, say starting now, the users of roadways are expected to pay a larger proportion of the costs.

If the Trans Texas Corridor is built as Gov. Rick Perry envisions, a pair of toll roads bypassing the Metroplex would be built within 10 years. One road would connect Denison to Brownsville, giving Fort Worth motorists a fast path to the U.S.-Mexico border. Another would connect Weatherford to Houston, giving Fort Worth motorists quick access to the Gulf Coast.

But if tolls on those corridor roads are comparable to the prices on Texas 130, will travelers stomach an estimated $30 to $45 in toll fees to go from, say, Fort Worth to San Antonio? Or will they stick with the trusty old Interstate 35, clogged as it may be?

As Perry prepares to kick-start the corridor plan with funding in the 2003 legislative session, Texans may soon realize that the corridor project is really being built with businesses in mind - not them. Companies that use trucks and rail lines to haul goods across Texas can work the cost of tolls into their business plans.

Of course, private vehicles will be welcome, too. But, budget-minded travelers may find it more cost-effective to take Southwest Airlines.

Speaking of Texas 130, commission members wanted to clear up a misconception about what will happen when the estimated $1.3 billion cost of the road is paid off.

Some reports have indicated that the road would become a freeway, much like Interstate 30. Not so, says Phillip Russell, president of the Texas Turnpike Authority. Rather, when the cost of the road is paid off, the tolls will continue to be collected to provide funding for new roads.

"I think we've been clear that the tolls will never be removed," Russell said.

He suspects that Metroplex planners regret removing the tollbooths from the old Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike after the debt was paid.

Had they remained from 1977 to the present, he said, $800 million would have been generated for Metroplex road projects.

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