Friday, August 19, 2005

"If (the RTC) can't get agreement from TxDOT, it should not designate 121 as a toll road."

Frisco adopts SH 121 toll resolution

By: MIKE RAYE, Staff writer
Frisco Enterprise
Copyright 2005

The Frisco City Council said it was the only fix to a broken system and voted to adopt a resolution calling for local control over the destiny of State Highway 121 as a toll road Tuesday night.

Collin County Commissioners in attendance said they would stand firm with Frisco, Allen, Plano and McKinney in negotiations with the Texas Department of Transportation and rescind its approval of tolls if the state failed to follow the resolution to the letter.

"We urge you to pass this tonight and allow us to get on with negotiations with TxDOT," said Collin County Judge Ron Harris. "We will stand with the four cities if (this resolution) is not adhered to."

Frisco - the originator of the resolution calling for a local consortium of city and county governments to administer 121 and its tolls, maintaining local control of revenue generated by the highway - was the last of the group of five to adopt the resolution. It was not without trepidation, however. By a 4-2 vote with council members Maher Maso and Matt Lafata dissenting, the measure passed.

"TxDOT has pushed hard on this because they see 121 as an asset, based on our demographics," Maso said.

He added that with the state in control, even possibly farming out the project to private construction firms, there was uncertainty over how much it would cost the average commuter to drive from the Dallas North Tollway in Frisco to U.S. Highway 75 in McKinney. The rate per mile could be between 8 or 9 cents to as high as 15 cents per mile, translating into a yearly individual toll bill between $780 and $1,170.

"In an ideal world this council would not be supporting tolls," said council member Tony Felker. "This is an imperfect world and systems are broken. The state came to us and said we need to find another way to raise the money. We have to get (this road) built."

County Commissioner Jack Hatchell - a former chair of the Regional Transportation Council, a 40-member board made up of representatives of local governments of 16 Dallas-Fort Worth counties - said, ultimately, the RTC has the authority to approve or deny toll roads in the region. Once the resolution was approved by all five entities, it would be submitted to the state for approval, after which the RTC would make the tollway designation.

"The RTC has to designate it as a toll road in its regional transportation mobility plan for it to be tolled," he explained. "If (the RTC) can't get agreement from TxDOT, it should not designate 121 as a toll road."

Mayor Mike Simpson said area traffic was a problem that will only get worse, and improving 121 was the only way to ease commuter headaches. It was a problem that required immediate attention, he said.

"I hear complaints every single day about traffic and transportation," Simpson said. "I was on the phone with someone today for 45 minutes talking about it. People don't understand that from DNT (Dallas North Tollway) to Hillcrest will be under construction and completed in 2008, whether it is paid for or not paid for by tolls. The rest of it, we hope would be done around 2010.

"If we continue to wait, or if we decide not to toll the portion between the DNT and Hillcrest, they would not go ahead and build the main lanes from Hillcrest up to Custer, and we would not get the interchanges. If we continue to wait the people who are complaining now will really be upset five years from now when we haven't even started on some of these other main lanes and the intersections. I would rather be crucified now for making a decision than be criticized years from now for having done nothing."

A sticking point could surround the highway's right-of way. The section of 121 from the Tollway to Hillcrest Road is already funded through the gasoline tax, including the right-of-way to expand the road. Negotiations between Frisco and local landowners secured the donation of parcels for right-of-way for other stretches, and that land has value - just how much must be calculated, Hatchell said. Getting the land for free saved the state millions of dollars, he argued, a point that has to be raised.

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Joy West reiterated concerns about how much weight the resolution would carry versus the state. She said she would vote in favor if the resolution had teeth.

"The only way I would support this is if (TxDOT) wavers from it one iota we pull out and start from scratch," she said.

Commissioner Hatchell said in the best-case scenario construction of the main lanes of 121 could begin in two years, opening to traffic in five years.

"I would love to think there is another solution to this; I would love to think the state would provide a better way to finance it," Simpson said, "But there are no answers. Like Judge Harris said, we need to stand as a unified body and tell the state, 'Do it and do it this way or we aren't going to do it at all.'"

City Manager George Purefoy, the author of the resolution that circulated among the three other cities and the county, returning to Frisco with only minor revisions, said the council's vote pleased him.

"This puts us in the best negotiating position with TxDOT," he said.

The next step is taking the resolution to Austin ahead of the RTC meeting Sept. 8.

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