Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Ric Williamson: "We're not getting enough feedback."

Still a free ride

Perry says extra grace period needed to debug gear, but toll-road critics call it a political move

Aug. 30, 2006

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

COPPELL -- Tarrant County residents who commute to the Dallas area may continue to use the Texas 121 toll road gratis for a couple more months, or maybe longer, Gov. Rick Perry said Tuesday.

Toll collection on the area's first all-electronic toll road, which informally opened to traffic in July to give motorists a free test run, was supposed to begin Friday. But the Texas Department of Transportation is still testing the high-tech gantries and camera equipment designed to keep track of vehicles on the road, the governor explained during a speech Tuesday at Coppell Middle School-North.

"Today, I've got good news for you: State Highway 121 will continue to be toll-free throughout the fall," Perry told about 200 supporters during a grand opening ceremony for the six-mile-long toll road connecting Lewisville, Carrollton and Coppell. "That deadline has been extended as the state thoroughly tests the equipment ... and to be absolutely sure the equipment has no bugs."

Once the system is up and running, owners of vehicles with TollTag windshield transponders will have the toll deducted from their accounts as usual. Vehicles without TollTags will have their license plates photographed, and the registered owner will be mailed a bill.

Toll-road critics picketing outside Perry's speech criticized the extra grace period.

"It was postponed until after the election, to delay the battle," said Jeff Harper of Fort Worth, a member of the Independent Texans political group.

But Perry and his supporters said the Nov. 7 election had nothing to do with it.

"I didn't make the decision," Perry said. "The Texas Department of Transportation made the decision, and I stand by it."

Since the road informally opened in mid-July, motorists whose vehicles were photographed have been mailed forms asking them to verify the time and date they used the road. But apparently few motorists are taking the time to mail in their responses, so state officials aren't certain the equipment is working properly.

"We're not getting enough feedback," said Ric Williamson of Weatherford, the Transportation Commission chairman.

It could be as late as January or February before toll collection begins, Williamson said.

Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816

© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram: