Friday, October 14, 2005

"Local leaders remain concerned about toll revenue being diverted from local projects and sent elsewhere in the region or state."

Region sends Highway 121 plan to state

Collin County: Proposal keeps toll revenue here; TxDOT has own idea

October 14, 2005

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2005

Collin County officials have forwarded their plan for making State Highway 121 a toll road to state officials, but the proposal is a long way from receiving approval – if that even occurs.

The county and the cities of Frisco, Allen, McKinney and Plano want to create a local government corporation to oversee construction and operation of the toll road. They want revenue to remain in the area for other construction projects.

But state officials have said they're reluctant to release control of such a project, and the proposal may run into problems on the regional level, too.

"My feeling is that if they bring the proposal that they brought ... it is going to be dead on arrival," said Grady Smithey, a Duncanville City Council member and a member of North Texas' Regional Transportation Council. The appointed group, made up of elected and appointed officials from throughout the region, has an equal say with the state in which transportation projects get built and how they are funded.

A decision is months away.

The Texas Department of Transportation has received several bids from private companies that are willing to build State Highway 121 and charge tolls to get money back. According to one estimate, such a scenario could result in a bid of $900 million or more.

Under the local plan, one scenario has the toll road raising an estimated $381 million for construction and another $326 million that would be used on other road projects in the next 40 years.

Local leaders have said they want tolls to pay only for the project cost. Tolls, which could be set at about 15 cents per mile, would be reduced once the road construction costs have been repaid for building all main lanes of Highway 121 and interchanges at Central Expressway and the Dallas North Tollway. Toll revenue would remain in Collin County.

Collin County Judge Ron Harris and Commissioner Jack Hatchell said Friday they would press ahead with the proposal, which could include an active role for the North Texas Tollway Authority.

Mr. Harris said he understood worries from officials in surrounding areas.

"I couldn't disagree with some concern about regionalism," he said. "But we don't agree with starting a Robin Hood on roads. That's what it could turn into."

He said he thought other local officials would see the merit of the Highway 121 proposal.
"We don't wish to pull away," Mr. Harris said. "It's what the Collin County citizens want us to do."

Mr. Hatchell said he thought that more toll roads would be built, with the toll revenue staying in the area.

"This is a different way of going about it [funding toll roads], but I think we're going to see more and more of it because counties have the ability to do it," Mr. Hatchell said. "It's a practical way to do it."

Of the toll proposal, he said, "We're full speed ahead."

"There are still people who are anti-toll," he said. "But from what I've heard, the majority of citizens want us to do something quickly. A toll road is the way."

Bob Brown, deputy district engineer for the Dallas office of the Texas Department of Transportation, declined to discuss specifics about the Collin County proposal, adding that the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin will have the final say on the plan.

"In the big picture, we realize that we have assets that can generate revenue, and we believe it is in the best interest of the state to keep its assets and generate revenue," he said.

If some form of tolls are approved, construction could start in 2007, with lanes open by 2010. Without tolls, state officials say, Highway 121 would not be built for several decades.

Local leaders remain concerned about toll revenue being diverted from local projects and sent elsewhere in the region or state. They also say that the four cities and the county have contributed millions toward the purchase of land for the widened highway, and they deserve a say in its future.

Regional leaders may find themselves in a situation similar to a recent debate about placing tolls on State Highway 121 in Denton County. After dozens of meetings and intense negotiations, local cities eventually agreed to place tolls on the highway, which was already scheduled for reconstruction.

Accepting a bid from a private company to build and operate a Highway 121 toll road in Collin County may not be acceptable, and the Regional Transportation Council will not do something that does not have the support of the county and its four largest cities, said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

"I'm still optimistic that there is a resolution in there that elected officials can reach," Mr. Morris said. "It's premature to say much until everyone can evaluate the other positions."
Staff writer Ed Housewright contributed to this report.


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