Saturday, February 28, 2004

Texas Transportation Commission stressed that they wouldn't force toll roads or trains on regions that don't want them.

Focus for mobility fund is toll roads, trains

February 27, 2004

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2004

AUSTIN--When voters statewide agreed in 2000 to go into debt to pay for traffic relief, state leaders repeatedly said the money would be spent on highway projects they otherwise couldn't afford.

Now the state's lead transportation agency is leaning heavily toward spending money from the Texas Mobility Fund on different traffic remedies: toll roads and commuter trains.

Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, which on Thursday took its first step toward drafting a long-term plan for the mobility fund, stressed that they wouldn't force toll roads or trains on regions that don't want them.

But they said they would strongly encourage the state's most populated areas to look at alternatives to traditional highways, especially toll roads.

When the mobility plan was originally pitched to voters, toll roads and public transit were hardly mentioned as candidates for the money, commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford acknowledged.

But the continuing crush of big-city congestion and the lack of sufficient gasoline taxes to pay for new highways are leaving the state no choice but to seek alternatives.

"In retrospect, it was not talked about as much as it should have been," Williamson said during a break in Thursday's meeting. "The question is, do you want to pay for one mile of road dollar-for-dollar, or four miles of toll road or six miles of transit?"

In Dallas-Fort Worth, candidates for the fund might include toll express lanes on Airport Freeway or a toll tunnel underneath Interstate 635 in Dallas.

Or, Williamson said, the mobility fund could be used to start up a regional rail system that leaders in the Metroplex's four largest counties are pursuing.

Building toll roads with the mobility fund, which is expected to generate about $3 billion over 10 to 15 years, would give the Texas Department of Transportation a permanent alternative to gasoline taxes, traditionally relied upon to build roads, officials said.

"You in essence create a new funding source," said Amadeo Saenz, the agency's assistant executive director for engineering operations. "We want to leverage the mobility fund as much as possible."

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, decisions about how to spend the fund's proceeds will be made jointly by the state Transportation Commission and the Regional Transportation Council, which is in charge of recommending transportation projects for 16 North Texas counties.

Residents will have a chance to voice their views during statewide public meetings in coming weeks. The commission will be asked to adopt a final plan in March or April.

The mobility fund, which primarily aims to relieve traffic within big cities, is expected to generate its revenue from the sale of bonds. The Legislature increased a variety of fees last year, including fines for speeding and drunken driving, which are expected to bring in about $250 million a year to pay off mobility fund debt.

The fund is not related to Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor , which is a plan to build 4,000 miles of freight roads and rails across the state -- although that plan also would rely on tolls.

Four commissioners supported spending the fund on toll roads and trains. A fifth commissioner, Hope Andrade of San Antonio, said she wants to make sure that potential toll roads are carefully studied before the money is spent.

"My biggest fear," she said, "is that we give our grandchildren debt."

How to get involved

Residents who want to learn more about the Texas Mobility Fund, or voice an opinion about how the money should be spent, may:

* Contact the local district office of the Texas Department of Transportation. Call the Fort Worth-area office at (817) 370-6500 or visit

* Call the Regional Transportation Council, which recommends North Texas transportation projects to the state, at (817) 695-9240 or visit trans .

Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

Fort Worth Star-Telegram: