Thursday, December 22, 2005

"Unfortunately, this has been a money grab."

Tollway board OKs divisive rate policy

Plan lowers initial tolls on new Bush Turnpike, Southwest Parkway

December 22, 2005

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2005

PLANO – A sharply divided North Texas Tollway Authority board approved a new toll rate policy Wednesday that supporters termed a solid, regional approach to road building and detractors termed a "Robin Hood" plan and "fiscal suicide."

Four board members from Tarrant, Denton and Johnson counties voted for a measure that could result in setting the lowest possible toll rates for Fort Worth's Southwest Parkway and the Bush Turnpike's eastern extension in Rowlett, Sachse and Garland.

Three board members from Collin and Dallas counties voted for other proposals that would have required higher initial toll rates and larger regular toll rate increases on the two projects, arguing that higher rates are required because the roads will not raise enough revenue on their own to meet their costs.

"Unfortunately, this has been a money grab," Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher said after the vote.

Under the plan approved Wednesday, the Bush Turnpike extension's toll rates probably will be 12 cents per mile when it opens in 2010.

That is expected to be the same rate on the tollway authority's existing roads in 2010, up from the current rate of 10 cents per mile.

The Southwest Parkway could have rates of 16 cents per mile when it opens in 2010, a higher rate that will help pay for planned architectural amenities.

Under options supported by representatives of Collin and Dallas counties, Southwest Parkway and turnpike extension users could have paid an additional 1 cent to 3 cents per mile, generating millions in additional revenue.

Ms. Keliher and others on the eastern side of the region argue that motorists paying to use the Bush Turnpike and Dallas North Tollway now will be asked to pay to help build the $825 million Southwest Parkway. Most recent estimates show that under the proposal approved Wednesday, Southwest Parkway will collect only enough tolls to pay for 45 percent of its operating and debt costs. It also is not expected to pay for itself even after 30 years.

In comparison, money collected on the Bush Turnpike and tollway extensions when they were first built paid for about 75 percent of their costs.

"It sets, in my opinion, a bad precedent," said board member Alan Sims of Dallas County. "It almost looks like fiscal suicide. It's like we're saying, 'It doesn't matter what the numbers are; let's move forward.' "

Regional outlook

Supporters of the measure argued for a more regional approach. While the turnpike and tollway lie almost exclusively in Dallas and Collin counties, motorists from other counties pay to use those roads, said longtime Tarrant County Commissioner Glen Whitley, who recently resigned to run for Tarrant County judge.

"This is a region. It's not Robin Hood," he said, referring to the state's tax system for funding education. "Our residents are choosing to live in areas that are different from where they work."

According to the tollway authority, residents of Denton, Tarrant and Johnson counties account for almost 23 percent of all electronic toll transactions on all of the agency's roads, bridges and tunnels. Residents of Dallas and Collin counties account for 75 percent of all tollway authority electronic toll transactions.

Mr. Whitley also took issue with the tollway authority's most recent traffic and revenue estimates, saying the Southwest Parkway will almost certainly generate more money than expected, even when it first opens.

"I truly believe that if you build it, they will come," he said.

Jack Miller, one of two Denton County board members, proposed a compromise last month that would require the Southwest Parkway and turnpike extension to have toll rates that are 1 cent per mile higher than what was approved Wednesday. That proposal was designed to thwart a proposal that would have required even higher rates, he said. When support for the measure approved Wednesday began to grow, Mr. Miller said, he shifted his vote to the plan he initially preferred.

"We have an obligation as a regional authority to encourage projects," he said. "They have to be sound, but that can be a [tollway] system-wide soundness."

The policy approved Wednesday does not formally set toll rates, which will be established before the projects open.

Board appointments

Through a legislative quirk, a majority of tollway board members are from counties that contain little of the toll road network. A small section of the Bush Turnpike runs through Denton County, and no toll projects exist in Tarrant or Johnson counties.

Under legislation approved in the mid-1990s, Dallas, Collin, Tarrant and Denton counties each appoint one member. Two members are rotated among the three counties that have toll roads – Dallas, Collin and Denton – but those board members can live in any of the four counties. One member, currently Kay Walls of Johnson County, is appointed by the governor. That appointee must live in a county adjacent to the four-county urban area.

The board makeup changed dramatically in recent months with the replacement of a potential swing vote. Longtime board member and Collin County resident Don Dillard's term expired during the four-month debate over toll rates. The board slot shifted to Denton County, and Mr. Dillard offered to continue as an appointee of that county, as legislation permitted. Denton County officials declined, choosing local resident Dave Denison.

"The court decided it wanted someone from Denton County," said County Judge Mary Horn.
The swing vote came into play a second time Wednesday, as the same 4-3 majority voted to require the tollway authority to review the Southwest Parkway's and turnpike extension's progress five years after they open. Tolls could be lowered or raised based on whether the two roads meet traffic and revenue goals, and tolls also could be adjusted depending on amenities approved by the tollway board.

"This speaks to some of the future difficulties we will have down the road functioning as a regional authority," said Collin County board member Paul Wageman.

While Collin and Dallas officials hinted at pushing for legislative changes to the NTTA bylaws after the contentious vote, board Chairman David Blair Jr. of Dallas County tried to mend fences.

"This has been a trying situation for the board for the last four months," he said. "We will prevail."


© 2005 The Dallas Morning News Co