Thursday, November 10, 2005

"This a statewide battle...it just happens that we were the first ones going through it."

TxDOT to county: SH 121 is ours

11/10/2005

By Amy Morenz,

The Allen American
Copyright 2005

Collin County leaders' plans to locally control and build a State Highway 121 toll road will face major obstacles, Texas Department of Transportation officials wrote State Sen. Florence Shapiro this week.

Collin County leaders' plans to locally control and build a State Highway 121 toll road will face major obstacles, Texas Department of Transportation officials wrote State Sen. Florence Shapiro this week.

With revenue shortfalls, it's "not in the best interest of the state to give away a revenue- generating asset with no expectation of a return," Dallas District Engineer Bill Hale wrote Shapiro, R-Plano.

The concept of creating a local entity would subdivide the region and could result in a "never-ending array of local tolling authorities," Hale writes.

Allen leaders, though, informally agreed on Tuesday to pursue a resolution passed by four Collin County cities for local control.

The council supports a Local Government Corporation that would to manage construction, maintenance and ownership of the SH 121 toll road. The entity would build and manage the $752 million tollway between North Central Expressway and the Dallas North Tollway building interchanges at both ends.

Four county commissioners and representatives from the county's four cities will meet with TxDOT leaders at 10 a.m. Monday at Allen City Hall. They will discuss the Collin County proposal calling for a local authority to control prospective SH 121 toll roads. The proposal was endorsed by the county, and the cities of Plano, Allen, Frisco and McKinney. The North Texas Tollway Authority board is scheduled to discuss proposals for financing, construction and maintaining SH 121 on Friday in Denton.

Allen would need to go back to the public hearing process if it planned to change its mind, said Mayor Steve Terrell. He wants to continue pursuing the resolution until a December Texas Highway Commission meeting.

The state's decision was made after seeing the success of tolls along the President George Bush Turnpike, which is operated by the North Texas Tollway Authority, Allen leaders said.

"In a short term, we've gone from a two-lane, farm-to-market road to one with national significance," City Manager Pete Vargas said. "I'm not aware of any other entity taking on the burden of the state like our proposal."

The SH 121 toll project is considered one of the most viable in the state, said John Baumgartner, city engineering director. He participated in a meeting Shapiro held last week when Collin County representatives were told to look for alternatives. The state believes it has invested between $300 and $400 million in right-of-way that needs to be recovered.

"Our challenge is if they don't accept our plan, where do we go from here? Do we negotiate or get the best deal we can?," he said.

Bob Brown, a TxDOT deputy district engineer, said on Monday the state will almost assuredly make the construction and operation decision. But by Tuesday, TxDOT officials were slightly backing away from that statement.

There's no other example of a local entity controlling a regional and state road, Brown said. He plans to tell Collin County leaders the concept is not a good one.

"It's not a good policy to give away a state asset to a local entity. That road moves traffic considered to be of regional and national significance," Brown said.

Collin County's proposal is probably "nearing life support," said Commissioner Jack Hatchell, who is leading negotiations for the county and the four cities. Hatchell requested an official response from TxDOT by Nov. 1. The letter to Shapiro was dated Monday.

"They encouraged us to put a proposal together, but never have officially told us," he said. "It's probably alive, but nearing death for all practical purposes."

"Our proposal is no different than what they are doing in Denton or Bexar County," said County Judge Ron Harris.

The Sept. 30 proposal calls for a May election in which county voters would decide whether to approve $400 million in standby ad valorem taxes if the tollway does not generate expected revenues. Defined as a Local Government Corporation, the Collin County-controlled organization would assume all financial obligations, the proposal states. Tolls would not be set higher than what would be needed to pay debt and operate and maintain the lanes.

"It's real frustrating that they would put through charade of encouraging local control and ask for us to come up with their own plan if not going to consider it," said Plano Mayor Pat Evans. "Our plan...frees up funds for the state to use in other places. We offered to take it off their plate...to protect our citizens."

The proposal state: "Because of a shortage of state funds to meet an increasing demand for new capital...it is not realistic to expect that TxDOT will have capital funds needed to fully develop the undeveloped right-of-way of State Highway 121 as a free road.

Collin County's proposal would "Balkanize the region," Brown said.

"That's like the area of Yugoslavia where the entire continent began fighting one another over local differences," the said.

"Other parts of the Metroplex are starting to think, 'If Collin County is getting their own, then maybe they can take over the NTTA (North Texas Tollway Authority).' Dallas County motorists have paid for years...for tolls through Plano and Frisco," Brown said.

Addressing his personal views, Brown stressed that the Texas Highway Commission would make the final decision.

"We don't want to battle with Collin County; we think there is still room for negotiations," Brown said. "We want to develop a partnership with them that meets the needs of the citizens of Collin County."

Hatchell is exploring alternatives and is hoping the North Texas Tollway Authority can find a way to be involved. If one of the private companies vying for the work gets the contract, Hatchell wants Collin County to have some type of oversight role.

Private companies have approached the state for the right to build on the public right-of-way and obtain the revenues. They include Skansa BOT, Macquarie Infrastructure Group, Texas Toll & Power, Cintra from Madrid, Spain and a team of Pioneer Heritage Partners, Transurban Inc., Fluor Enterprises and Parsons Transportation Group.

"I'm concerned that it will be a push to the private companies," Harris said. "It would make good sense that NTTA will step forward and offer alternatives."

Both Plano and Allen have express concerns about a private company offering upfront money for the right to build and manage the toll road.

"This a statewide battle...it just happens that we were the first ones going through it," Hatchell said. "I've been told that this is one of the hottest toll projects in the U.S. That's why the private sector is interested."

Collin County could become a test case for the state as it examines how private companies could pay for the right to build and manage toll roads, Hatchell said. A private company can pay much more initially than the NTTA, he said.

Under state law, surplus money would have to stay in the district, Brown said. The county would be also protected by rules established by the Texas Highway Commission keeping revenues in the region, a Regional Transportation County revenue policy and a local agreement stating surplus revenues would stay in the county, Brown said.

"Perhaps they view the tolls as a cash cow for themselves," Brown said. "They can take the surplus and use it for anything under their proposal. Collin County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation and they will eventually generate surplus. The taxpayers of Collin County would be at risk...because they would underwrite the bonds."

"It's an important decision to make in Collin County, and I'm the peacemaker working both sides." Hatchell said. "We have to have it in five years because that's how long the frontage roads will carry our traffic."

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

┬ęStar Community Newspapers 2005 www.zwire.com

pigicon