Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Ric Williamson: "The State expects some toll-revenue sharing for any future projects that it helps build."

County wants 121 to keep the change

Collin: Other leaders view toll project as state 'revenue generator'

By TONY HARTZEL / The Dallas Morning News

If motorists must pay to drive State Highway 121 in Collin County, the money collected should be used to widen only that road, many local leaders there say.
The growing sentiment runs counter to state and regional leaders' hopes that a Highway 121 toll road would become a "revenue generator" that could help pay for highway projects in an era of stagnant gasoline-tax rates. Local leaders, in making their argument against the idea, say the possible toll road should not be viewed as a "cash cow."

"We heard enough at the city level and at our own level to say that the money needs to stay right on Highway 121," said Collin County Judge Ron Harris. "We think they should only sell enough bonds to finance the project – no excess."

A growing undercurrent of frustration with state funding policies in other areas helped lead to the move to scale back the revenue potential for the road and call for a county-based authority to oversee its financing and operation. Local policymakers are watching the continued debate over school finance and the plan critics have dubbed Robin Hood that has diverted millions of dollars from property-wealthy districts such as Plano to property-poor districts statewide.

Now, they are leery of creating a toll road that they say could eventually raise millions in revenue, only to have it sent to other parts of the state.
"It should not become a 'Robin Hood' for construction," said Frisco Mayor Mike Simpson. "If our council is going to look at a toll, one condition is that it pays only for what is needed."

Under the local toll authority idea, one possibility calls for future city councils and commissioners courts to decide what to do with tolls after paying off the project. Some tolls likely would be needed for maintenance and future reconstruction, but future leaders could decide what toll rates to set and where the revenue would be spent. State officials say the legal framework already exists to ensure toll revenue goes toward local projects.

The Collin County idea may be an easier sell for local leaders now, but it could have ramifications later. If Collin County supports a locally based toll road, it could be turning down hundreds of millions of dollars in future road construction money, state and regional leaders warn.

"I don't know if TxDOT [the Texas Department of Transportation] wants to be in the business of telling local leaders what decision to make, but they need to make that decision knowing they are walking away from capacity expansion in the future," said Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson.

According to recent estimates, a more traditional toll road would raise $381 million in construction funds. It also would raise another $326 million in incremental revenue over 40 years. Most of the construction funds would pay for completion of Highway 121 and build full interchanges at the Dallas North Tollway and Central Expressway. The $326 million was viewed as money that could help pay for other local projects.

Raising more money

With almost statewide reluctance to raise the 20-cents-per-gallon state tax on gasoline, state officials have generated heavy discussion of toll roads as a way to raise more money for highway projects.

Texas raises enough money to pay for about 30 percent of its road construction needs. With the toll policy, the state hoped to give more autonomy to local officials eager to build highway projects.

"We've done our best with limited resources to market new ways to solve problems," Mr. Williamson said.

Highway 121, for example, is viewed as one of the most lucrative toll projects in the state. Lured by its revenue potential, private developers have submitted proposals rumored to be valued at around $900 million for the right to build and operate the toll road.

The highway therefore can be viewed not only as a simple road, but also as an asset to the state, said Bill Hale, Dallas district engineer for the state Transportation Department. Because of that, the state might find it difficult to relinquish Highway 121 to a Collin County-led toll group that wouldn't raise additional revenue for other projects.

"We have an asset in this road out there, and turning it over would be like turning over your house," Mr. Hale said. Collin County may hope to simply assume control of Highway 121, but private bidders have set the bar higher, Mr. Hale added.

Local officials view it differently, arguing that local efforts have led to more than $100 million in land donations for the project. Local governments also have set aside tens of millions of dollars to help with the project. In addition, county officials say if a Collin-run toll group widened and operated Highway 121, it would allow the state to spend almost $400 million elsewhere in the region on needed projects.
"Projects like this should not be looked at as a cash cows just because we have the population and infrastructure," said Allen City Manager Peter Vargas, who pointed out that Collin County already has participated willingly in other toll projects, including the Bush Turnpike.In recent years, state officials have modified their position on toll roads, and that could have an effect on Highway 121 discussions.
On the Bush Turnpike, the state built several major highway interchanges, while the North Texas Tollway Authority built the turnpike's main lanes and then charged and collected all tolls. Today, the state still views itself as a partner with toll agencies, but it expects some toll-revenue sharing for any future projects that it helps build, Mr. Williamson said.

"For the past several years, we've made it clear to everyone that if we put money into a toll project, we are going to need to be part of the tolls collected in the future," he said.

That stance, coupled with local officials' belief that they have already contributed extensively to the project, may be leading to a difficult impasse that could endanger Highway 121 widening plans.

"If we decide to toll, it will be under the following conditions," said Plano Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Scott Johnson during a City Council meeting this week in which the council laid out a draft resolution. "If those conditions are not met, we would vote against tolling."

Short on time

Leaders on both sides of the discussion say they expect to reach some agreement, but time is running short.

State and regional leaders have set an Aug. 15 deadline for a Highway 121 toll road decision. Plano, Allen and Collin County have set votes for Aug. 9. Frisco has a discussion and vote scheduled for its Wednesday meeting. McKinney, which held three public hearings on the matter, voted in October to support tolls in hopes of getting a finished Highway 121 and some revenue for widening Central Expressway.

While hundreds of millions of dollars is at stake, state officials say, they will not force a toll road if local leaders don't want it. But they also will look for common ground if they believe a small faction is holding up a toll road.

"I do believe strongly there is a happy medium," said Mr. Hale. "Unanimous and consensus, if you look at their definitions, are not the same."

Any decision to put tolls on Highway 121 in Collin County must get approval from two groups: the Texas Transportation Commission and the Regional Transportation Council, an appointed 40-member group of mostly elected North Texas leaders that oversees transportation spending at the North Central Texas Council of Governments. The regional group historically has supported local sentiment on projects.

The situation is similar to one in Denton County in 2004 that required extensive deadline negotiation, said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the council of governments, the regional planning agency.

Local leaders need to hear other ideas about how excess toll revenue would still be controlled at the regional level, and the road's electronic tolling feature means that tolls could be adjusted lower during weekends and off-peak periods.
"I still think we're going to get it," he said, adding that if they don't agree, "where will the county get the money to build the magnitude of projects needed when they are already the size of Fort Worth?"

Staff writer Lee Powell contributed to this report.
E-mail thartzel@dallasnews.com

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