Thursday, October 20, 2005

"They see it as a cash cow. It's unfortunate that's the current philosophy of TxDOT."

NTTA will study SH 121 possibilities

10/20/2005

By Amy Morenz, Staff Writer
The Allen American
Copyright 2005

Collin County Judge Ron Harris and Commissioner Jack Hatchell are conducting a public and private campaign to persuade the North Texas Tollway Authority to manage the prospective State Highway 121 toll road.

Harris officially asked NTTA's board members on Wednesday to consider two options for five miles of SH 121 and its interchanges between the Dallas North Tollway and Central Expressway. The tollway authority could either design, build, operate and maintain the toll road, or it could manage the entire project as a standalone effort, Harris said.

Board members approved a study to review at their Nov. 11 meeting. The state's deadline for a SH 121 decision is Dec. 31.

Collin County will not support the project if tolls exceed 15 cents per mile, Harris said. Tolls could be higher if a private company is involved, Harris said. Private companies have stated they would need to generate between $365 and $400 million from the project, he said.

"It will probably be a lot less money for TxDOT if NTTA gets this project. They see it as a cash cow," he said. "It's unfortunate that's the current philosophy of TxDOT."

Harris' comments came hours before Hatchell was scheduled to meet with Texas Department of Transportation officials about Collin County's proposal.

The cities of Plano, Allen, Frisco and McKinney, and Collin County passed resolutions to create a Local Government Corporation to manage construction, maintenance and ownership of the project estimated to cost $365 million. The proposal calls for revenues to finance only SH 121 and not other roads -- unlike the Denton County section of SH 121, from which additional revenue will fund other projects.

Gaining approval from TxDOT will probably be the biggest obstacle to the plan, Hatchell said.

"This needs to be a local decision made at the regional level," said Bob Brown TxDOT deputy district engineer for the Dallas District. "The good news is that there are lots of options that are all feasible."

The NTTA needs to be more responsive and aggressive to pursue the SH 121 project, said Paul Wageman, the NTTA board member representing Collin County.

"The NTTA is the toll provider in the county, and we need to be involved," he said. " This project is in the heart of our county and at the intersection of the Dallas North Tollway. It's in our best interest to consider doing this."

The NTTA operates the Dallas North Tollway and the President George Bush Turnpike.

"It sounds like the first choice is for NTTA to build and operate the road, because you want to make sure there is consistent service in the region," said NTTA Chair Dave Blair. "Whatever the outcome, at a minimum, it sounds like you want us to operate the system."

Private companies vying for the SH 121 project are proposing to pay for using the right-of-way owned by TxDOT. They include Skansa BOT, Macquarie Infrastructure Group, Texas Toll & Power, Cintra from Madrid, Spain and team of Pioneer Heritage Partners, Transurban Inc. Fluor Enterprises and Parsons Transportation Group.

Unlike NTTA's current system-wide approach, Collin County citizens want the project to be managed separately and dedicate bond revenues to SH 121 and not other projects, Harris said. The NTTA used a similar approach when it started separate projects for the Dallas North Tollway and Mountain Creek Bridge in Grand Prairie, Harris said.

Collin County leaders want SH121 improvements to serve growth, Harris said. The county is gaining 40,000 people a year and could add 200,000 people in the five years it would take to build SH 121.

"That's almost another Plano, and it's all coming to where the extension of the Dallas North Tollway is," Harris said.

The county plans to provide $200 million to build interchanges at Dallas North Tollway and Central Expressway that were not included in previous TxDOT plans, Harris said. Cities along SH121 would provide $35 million in police, operations and lane maintenance expenses valued at $35 million, he said.

The first hurdle for SH 121's prospective tolls passed last week when the Regional Transportation Council gave contingency approval for Collin County's plans. The vote allows TxDOT to start detailed design work, said Harris.

"I took a beating at that meeting because we want to keep the money in Collin County," Harris said. "But, that's not new, because Denton County is keeping all of theirs."

Contact staff writer Amy Morenz at 972-398-4263 or amy.morenz@scntx.com.


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