Friday, August 05, 2005

"The state is looking at this as a cash cow."

Council taps brakes on tolls resolution

By: MIKE RAYE, Staff writer
The Frisco Enterprise Copyright 2005

City officials recently stated their desire to stand beside their peers and act as a partner in solving the transportation puzzle as a "regional player."

That doesn't mean they will bow to peer pressure, though.

Shunning suggestions they had to render a decision by Aug. 15 on whether to approve or deny tolls on State Highway 121, the Frisco City Council voted to table adoption of a City Manager George Purefoy-penned resolution calling for local control over the highway until dust kicked up by late talks between the Texas Department of Transportation and the Collin County Commissioners Court settled.

The Regional Transportation Council (RTC) - an arm of the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), made up of appointed representatives of area cities and counties - had imposed a deadline on Frisco, Plano, Allen, McKinney and Collin County to decide on the tolls by Aug. 15, warning the project would be delayed for at least a year if the entities let the deadline slip.

The McKinney City Council approved the resolution Monday night, and Plano is to vote on it August 8, as are the Collin County Commissioners. Allen's city council votes on the measure August 9.

The RTC next meets on Sept. 8 at NCTCOG headquarters in Arlington.

Purefoy said discussions are ongoing within city and county offices about specific wording, and the state and county are still ironing out kinks of their own. That's why Frisco should wait, he said.

"I suggest waiting until August 16 to vote on this resolution because discussions are still going on between (Collin County Judge) Ron Harris and (TxDOT Dallas District Engineer) Bill Hale," Purefoy said, pointing out some sticking points, but added, "I continue to have a difficult time understanding why the users of 121 would have to pay any more than they really have to. It's another Robin Hood plan."

Purefoy's resolution says that tolls should only be levied to make up the deficit in funding needed to build the entire project, including main lanes, service roads and interchanges at the Dallas North Tollway and U.S. Highway 75 (Central Expressway), keeping the price-per-mile toll low, with any additional revenue going back to a local authority comprised of the five municipal entities.

The price tag for the project is about $345 million, according to a 121 toll feasibility study prepared by NCTCOG. The state builds roads with money raised from a tax on gasoline, and that has provided enough to build the main lanes of 121 from the Tollway to Hillcrest Road ($84.3 million) and access roads from Custer Road on the border of Frisco and McKinney to Central ($44 million). Collin County stands ready to chip in another $30 million, and another $12.8 million is coming from federal funding, prodded along by U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, who represents Collin and Dallas counties in Washington. The money would come from a new transportation bill awaiting President Bush's signature.

"As more people move to Texas, our roads and transit systems must be upgraded and expanded to assure safety and meet the higher demand," Johnson said. "This transportation bill provides critical funding to meet our state's growing needs. It will also put people to work on beneficial public projects... further strengthening our robust economy."

Earlier estimates showed an expectation of as much as $16 million from Washington for the project.

Johnson's comments were insightful, especially regarding growth. The North Texas region, and this section of Collin County particularly, is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state, with an increasing volume of traffic traveling on arguably the most potentially lucrative stretches of road in Texas. Cars plus tolls equals windfall, something that is not lost on state highway planners that see their cupboards bare and hundreds of highway projects in stasis awaiting money to build them. Highway 121 could be a great revenue generator for the state, or perhaps another more colloquial term, as suggested by Council Member Jim Joyner.

"The state is looking at this as a cash cow," he said.

Like Joyner, Council Member Matt Lafata said he's averse to tolling, but surrenders to the reality of the situation.

"I was against tolling in the beginning, and I'm still against tolling, but the writing is on the wall," he said. "The resolution is the only solution I would consider because I don't want 121 to be a cash cow for the state because we really won't get anything out of it at all."

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Joy West said she's worried the state could render moot any decision or resolution local authorities come up with, superceding local authority over local destiny.

"My biggest concern is the cities and the county pass this resolution and it won't be worth the paper it is written on," she said.

Purefoy said there is still the possibility of private enterprise getting involved with 121, much like Spanish firm Cintra/Zachary's involvement in the Trans-Texas Corridor project, tapped by TxDOT to build it. The group is a joint venture between Madrid-based Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte, S.A. and Zachary Construction Corporation, a San Antonio construction firm. The Cintra/Zachary consortium also includes Frisco-based Earth Tech Inc.

The Trans-Texas Corridor is envisioned to be a network of multi-lane highways spanning the state, incorporating improvements to existing roadways and construction of new ones. The estimated total cost for the system ranges from $145.2 billion to $183.5 billion, according to TxDOT. Creative funding is necessary to build roads, because the gasoline tax revenue can't keep up with rising costs and demand on the transportation infrastructure, TxDOT maintains.

"TxDOT has private entities bidding to give them $300 million above and beyond the cost of building 121, and that complicates the situation," Purefoy said. "If private interests get involved and operate the road, they can set the tolls at whatever they want. TxDOT studies have shown the public will bear up to 25 cents a mile."

"If road projects go to private enterprises tolls will be what the market will bear," agreed Joyner. "We (the public) will bear some, but at a point we will start to scream."

Whatever the outcome, the five entities should work closely together to protect their interests, Council Member Tony Felker said.

"This has been a good joint effort to come up with a solution (through the resolution)," he said. "I am disappointed at the position the state has taken, though. I am not in favor of tolling at this time, but let's see what happens in the next two weeks."

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