"They need to establish a policy, and then fit the proposed projects into the policy, not the other way around."
Southwest Parkway, Bush proposals wait for funding answers
Saturday, November 12, 2005
By TONY HARTZEL
The Dallas Morning News
DENTON – Two major toll road projects will not raise nearly enough money to pay for themselves, a report released Friday states, all but assuring that toll rates on existing roads must rise 10 percent by 2007 to pay for the new construction.
Predicted revenue shortfalls on the Southwest Parkway and the eastern extension of the Bush Turnpike have the North Texas Tollway Authority looking for ways to make up the difference. Their options include setting higher toll rates on those two projects and following its practice of using toll money from older roads to help pay for new ones.
The tollway authority's board of directors postponed a decision on the projects' funding for at least a month but members said they remain committed to building them both. The issue has many debating how much money the regional agency should devote to building projects that don't raise enough money on their own.
The report "basically says this project [the Southwest Parkway] is not feasible. Users should have to pay more," said agency board member Paul Wageman of Collin County.
According to numbers released Friday, tolls on the $825 million Southwest Parkway would raise enough to pay for 46 to 69 percent of the highway's costs, depending on the toll rate approved. The Bush Turnpike extension through Rowlett, Garland and Sachse would raise about 64 to 88 percent of its costs, depending on the toll rate.
By comparison, many of the roads in the tollway authority system from the Bush Turnpike to the Dallas North Tollway extension in Frisco attracted enough traffic to pay for about 75 percent of their costs when first built.
The new revenue estimates will help narrow the options and the discussion for Tarrant County leaders, who have not had much information about the toll issue so far, said Bill Meadows, the Tarrant County representative on the toll authority board. The board will meet with commissioners and other elected officials in Collin, Denton, Dallas and Tarrant counties before making a final decision.
"I think we're very close to having a toll strategy that's fair," said Mr. Meadows, who expects the cost of the Southwest Parkway to drop and the number of vehicles predicted to use the road to rise before construction begins. "But we need a little more time for us to do what a lot of people said we need to do."
The agency's board of directors informally agreed recently to raise rates on all of its roads by 2007 to help pay for new regional toll projects. Rates will go from 10 cents a mile to 11 cents per mile with a TollTag. A drive on the entire Dallas North Tollway would rise from $2.10 to $2.30, and a drive on the entire Bush Turnpike would rise from $3 to $3.25.
A similar increase also has been projected for 2010, taking rates on the existing roads to 12 cents per mile. Rates then would automatically rise about 7.5 percent every five years.
On the Southwest Parkway, initial toll rates could range from 16 cents per mile to 19 cents per mile under two proposals presented Friday. On the eastern extension, initial rates could range from 12 cents per mile to 15 cents per mile. According to the financial proposal Friday, rates on the new, more expensive roads also would automatically rise every five years. But depending on the option chosen, they also could rise at a greater rate – about 15 percent every five years.
Mr. Meadows predicted that Southwest Parkway users can expect to pay a maximum initial rate of about 17 cents per mile.
The tollway board also pledged to look at a policy that would place more weight on setting tolls to make the project cover its costs as quickly as possible. The figures released Friday show that tolls of 16 cents per mile collected on the Southwest Parkway mean that the road would not cover its costs until after 2041. Tolls of 19 cents per mile would allow the parkway to cover its costs in 2015.
The eastern extension would collect enough in tolls to cover its costs in 2010 or 2015 with 15-cent- or 12-cent-per-mile tolls, respectively.
The agency needs to establish a firm policy that deals with more than just setting toll rates and then stick to it, said Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher, who has questioned the use of toll revenue collected in Dallas County to pay for the Southwest Parkway's extra costs.
"They need to establish a policy, and then fit the proposed projects into the policy, not the other way around," she said. "If the Southwest Parkway policy meets the goal, go for it. But stop bending over backwards to do the Southwest Parkway."
© 2005 The Dallas Morning News