Thursday, July 28, 2005

Plano stands up to TxDOT and private highwaymen.

Plano prefers local control of SH 121 tolls

By: Amy Morenz and Lynnette Phillips, Staff writers
Plano Star Courier
Copyright 2005

Collin County's desire to keep State Highway 121 toll revenue close to home could be realized in the coming weeks.

Faced with an Aug. 15 Texas Department of Transportation deadline to develop a countywide consensus, Plano City Council members on Monday said they prefer local control. They voiced strong support to create a new local entity responsible for constructing and building SH 121's main lanes and interchanges at Dallas North Tollway and Central.

The project could be delayed one year if a decision is not reached by Aug. 15, they said. There's not enough gas tax to fund the projects for an unspecified number of years, TxDOT officials have told county leaders.

The Plano council won't make an official decision until Aug. 8, but expressed a strong preference for the "Plano version" of a resolution calling for local toll control. The resolution could place leaders from Plano, Collin County, Allen, Frisco and McKinney in charge of decisions about building the main lanes.

County leaders, city council representatives and city engineers have been working behind the scenes to draft the resolution everyone can approve, Plano Councilman Scott Johnson said. The Regional Transportation Council has the final power to adopt tolls, but prefers the county and cities agree first.

"The county judge has agreed to place the full faith and credit of the county behind the bonds," said Johnson, who participated in the negotiations. "Our collective meetings agreed we don't want overfunding and don't want it linked to other projects."

Building the main lanes and interchanges to the east and west could cost $345 million, according to earlier TxDOT estimates. Adding tolls could generate $707.9 million extra if the entire section from U.S. 75 to the Dallas North Tollway is tolled; $505.7 million if only the section between U.S. 75 and Hillcrest is tolled. Gas-tax funding for the section between the tollway and Hillcrest is already secured.

Of course, those estimates may have changed.

Collin County commissioners want to make sure there are no surprises on cost estimates before they make their decision about tolls on SH 121.

Commissioners, during their meeting on Tuesday in McKinney, directed county engineer Ruben Delgado to contact PBS&J, the company that provided cost estimates in the SH 121 feasibility study, to make sure the $345 million will cover the construction of the Tollway-U.S. 75 stretch.

County Judge Ron Harris said he has heard the same dollar amounts spouted for a long time and does not want to approve the toll project, on old or dated information. Delgado said the current cost estimates are based on a feasibility study that was completed in March.

"Seems like the $100 million for the ramps have been there for a long time," Harris said.

He said a good valid cost estimate could be well more than $400 million. Commissioners added that right-of-way acquisition along the corridor would increase the cost estimate.

The state's control over the right-of-way is still a question facing Collin County and its four major cities, Plano city engineer Alan Upchurch said on Monday.

"We will still have to assume the highway commission gives us the right-of-way at no cost," he said. "That's a big question moving forward."

Congress is considering a proposal to encourage private ownership of new toll roads. A pending highway spending bill would allow private companies to raise up to $15 billion for highway projects using bonds exempt from federal income taxes.

Cintra-Zachry has bid for a share of the Trans-Texas Corridor construction, Johnson said. The private company wants to build the $1 billion, 42-mile State Highway 130 extension from Austin to Seguin.

"This outside entity wants to do the construction, set tolls and pay the state," Johnson said. "We may not have a decision to make at all. We could make a pitch to the state that they don't have to invest anymore and to let us have control."

The state's right-of-way ownership is a big asset, said Plano City Manager Tom Muehlenbeck.

When San Antonio tried creating its own authority, the state took over, said Randy Jennings, who leads the toll opposition.

"The concern should be if the state will supercede," he said. Jennings wants the section of SH 121 to be free between the Dallas North Tollway and Hillcrest because they are currently funded by gas tax.

"Can you honestly say you personally have looked at every viable option?" he asked Plano's council.

County Commissioner Jack Hatchell said on Tuesday he would also like to know what it would take to add a cash lane, because all that has been talked about is allowing only electronic tolls. That would mean everyone that travels on the SH 121 toll road would have to have a Tolltag. Hatchell, was concerned about those traveling from out of state and those without a Tolltag getting stuck on the toll road with nowhere to go.

Delgado said that by adding a cash lane they county would undoubtedly have to acquire more right-of-way, which will add to the cost of the project.

Plano city leaders want any new local authority would operate according to North Texas Tollway Authority standards and contract with the NTTA to handle operations and maintenance. Tolls would be set to repay debt and fund maintenance and operation, with the new authority charged with determining how extra revenues would be used.

Plano differs from Frisco on the question of who decides how to disperse extra toll revenues.

The majority of Plano's council wants a future authority make those decisions. Councilman Shep Stahel, though, wanted more details on the revenue sharing plan. Right-of-way contributions from Plano and JC Penney should be considered, he said.

Frisco City Manager George Purefoy recommended that excess revenue be shared equally by the four cities and Collin County after the bonds are repaid or the tolls set to maintain and operate the project. Purefoy's plan also sets a maximum toll rate based on the Dallas North Tollway's rate.

Plano's council wants more flexibility on making revenue distribution decisions.

"Tolls and maintenance are not an exact science," said Councilwoman Loretta Ellerbe. "I'd like to be free to pay off the bonds early. Tying us down could create a problem."

Collin County likes Plano's approach if a toll road is approved, Hatchell told Plano council members on Monday.

Contact staff writer Amy Morenz at 972-398-4263 or

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