Friday, December 16, 2005

Texas Transportation Commission touts the benefits of a toll road slush fund.

Official touts toll roads for funding of light rail

Dec. 15, 2005

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2005

AUSTIN — Instead of trying to increase sales taxes, North Texas leaders should consider using money from future toll roads to build a regionwide commuter rail system, Texas Transportation Commission members said Thursday.

“Has anyone looked at whether a regional toll system could replace the sales tax?” commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford asked a Metroplex delegation Thursday.

Williamson and other commissioners, who oversee the Texas Department of Transportation, expressed frustration that North Texas leaders don’t seem more eager to take advantage of new state laws that facilitate using private dollars to build roads, rail lines and other transportation projects.

A growing number of private investment firms are interested in pouring billions of dollars into toll roads worldwide, especially in the United States and Europe. Texas was among the first states to pass laws governing public-private arrangements.

The private group Cintra-Zachry has agreed to spend $6 billion on a Trans-Texas Corridor from Fort Worth-Dallas to San Antonio and to pay Texas a $1.2 billion fee. Investors typically pay large sums upfront in exchange for the right to collect tolls between 50 and 99 years.

Such arrangements can reduce costs for taxpayers as a whole, but they increase the costs to toll road users.

Metroplex leaders say they would prefer that a commuter rail system in five or six counties be funded with a half-cent sales tax increase, which would require the Legislature to raise the 8.25 percent limit and would also require voter approval.

“We get confused when we hear some officials saying they want to raise the sales tax for transit,” Williamson said. “Our view is, we already have the tools to start making these decisions. We’re in the business of using our financial options.”

Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said Metroplex leaders believe it’s important to maintain a philosophical “firewall” between road and rail funds.

Generally, the belief is that toll road money should be spent on roads and sales tax revenues on mass transit, he said.

It’s also questionable whether toll roads could produce enough money to support commuter rail operating costs, he said.

Spending toll road money on rail would also mean, “We still would not have addressed the problems on the roadway side. Some of us feel that would be doing an injustice to the transportation system over the next 25 years.”

But if legislators don’t raise the sales tax limit, commuter rail supporters would have little choice but to seek alternative funding sources, he said. Area lawmakers have warned rail advocates that a proposed sales-tax increase for rail would have little support, even in a local-option election.

Commissioners requested Thursday’s discussion to draw attention to controversial subplots regarding the gradual privatization of the transportation system.

The rail dispute aside, Morris told commissioners he believes that North Texas is on the cutting edge of using alternatives to the motor fuels tax, which is the traditional way of funding highways, in its planning.

The region’s long-term plan includes about 22 toll projects, he said. Some, such as Southwest Parkway (Texas 121T) in Fort Worth, are traditional toll roads. Others, including Northeast Loop 820, are toll express lanes in the median of a traditional freeway.

Commissioners and Metroplex leaders also debated the proposed Texas 121 toll road in Collin County.

Area mayors and county officials favor allowing the North Texas Tollway Authority to build the road. The Plano-based tollway authority operates the Dallas North Tollway and the President George Bush Turnpike in Collin County.

But state transportation officials want to hire a private firm to build and manage the road, which could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars. Under a development agreement, a private firm would pay fees that not only cover the cost of road construction but could also be used to expand Central Expressway (U.S. 75) in far north Collin County, Dallas district engineer Bill Hale said.

City officials from Allen, Frisco, McKinney and Plano argued that decisions about Texas 121 should be made locally because the road cuts through their cities.

But transportation department officials said nearly half the traffic on the highway is from other counties, including 11 percent from Tarrant County.

Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

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