Sunday, August 14, 2005

Local leaders remain concerned that money they raise in tolls will eventually go to other parts of the state.

State and regional interests clash on toll road proposal

Tony Hartzel
Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2005

When North Texas leaders talk about regional transportation projects, raised voices usually haven't been required.

But local officials haven't had to talk about something as thorny as the recent question of placing tolls on State Highway 121 in Collin County and other major highways.

About a week ago, a discussion at the Dallas Regional Mobility Coalition simmered into a curt back-and-forth between state and local officials. Bill Hale, Dallas district engineer with the Texas Department of Transportation, engaged in a volley with Collin County Judge Ron Harris and others.

"We are not run by TxDOT. We are local," Mr. Harris said at the meeting.

He was responding to concerns from Mr. Hale about a local proposal to designate the North Texas Tollway Authority as the preferred agency for collecting all tolls in the region – even tolls on state-owned projects.

Mr. Hale had raised questions about the proposal at the meeting. The proposal had a provision, but not a requirement, that could affect the lucrative bids of private companies seeking the rights to widen and collect tolls on roads such as Highway 121, Mr. Hale told coalition members. He wanted assurances that the state would not be blamed if the tollway authority was not chosen to collect tolls.

'Evil empire'

"I know I got frustrated," said Mr. Hale, who said he felt like he had to fight the vision that his department was the "evil empire" trying to force its will on regional leaders.

The mobility coalition usually tackles basic issues concerning transportation legislation and regional road and rail project updates. Whether the recent tension is an aberration or a signal of tough discussions ahead remains to be seen.

With gas tax rates static and state officials reluctant to raise Texas' 20-cent-per-gallon levy, the focus on how to increase road project revenue has shifted to tolls. At the same time, the state also has placed more power in the hands of local leaders, rather than keeping control 220 miles away in Austin.

Local control

For example, local leaders have a good idea how much money they will get for major road construction projects for the next 10 years, and they can decide how to partition the funds.

With defined limits on the state coffers, local officials also can decide whether or how to raise other forms of revenue with things such as toll roads.

"All of this is the natural result of the state divesting the authority to act and the responsibility to act to the regional and local level," said Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson.

He added that one thing Gov. Rick Perry "is bound and determined to have happen is regions have the authority to make decisions about their transportation grid. Rick Perry wants to see a day that local leaders will not have to come to Austin and beg. "

The debate about Highway 121 has continued in part because local leaders remain concerned that money they raise in tolls will eventually go to other parts of the state, even though current legislation allows the money to remain in the area.

"I applaud Ric if he really believes that," said Mr. Harris, the county judge. "The true test will be if Austin can manage its assets to also ensure its receptiveness to local control."

Talks ahead

Whether politics and the battle between local and state officials will play a larger role in future transportation planning remains to be seen. Mr. Hale said he has held productive meetings with the tollway authority that should ease everyone's concerns about the toll collection policy.

"I wasn't expecting to get into the politics of the thing," Mr. Hale said. "As an engineer, I was looking at the practicality of the thing."

A lot more discussions remain between the state and Collin County officials before anything is decided on Highway 121 tolls. And more political discussions are expected as the way road projects are funded continues to evolve.

"Politics has been in this for a long time already. It is simply the relationships that make things work," Mr. Harris said.

Tony Hartzel can be reached at and at P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, Texas 75265.

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