Thursday, November 30, 2006

"State officials have hailed Highway 121 as the wave of the future in toll roads."

Toll collection to start on 121 stretch

Don't collect quarters: Denton County leg will be all-electronic

November 30, 2006

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

No more free ride on the new State Highway 121 toll road in Denton County.

Starting Friday morning, the Texas Department of Transportation will start collecting tolls on Highway 121 between Lewisville and Coppell. And because it's North Texas' first all-electronic toll road, motorists won't find a place to drop their quarters.

State officials have hailed Highway 121 as the wave of the future in toll roads – no tollbooths to create delays or safety problems.

To drive on the road, motorists have two options. They can use a windshield transponder, such as a TollTag, connected to a customer account that pays tolls automatically. If they don't have a transponder, cameras will read license plates and send a bill to the addresses of vehicle owners.

"It's a new generation of toll facility," said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the regional planning agency. "There is going to be a transition. There is some fear that the road will lose revenue from cash payers. But we're more than convinced that technology can overcome the transition."

Plans call for other stretches of Highway 121 to open as toll roads in the next few years. Eventually, the highway could become one of the most lucrative toll roads in the nation.

It could bring billions to the region and partially replace the 20-cent-per-gallon state fuel tax as a source for highway construction money.

Right now, the state is operating the new toll road, but it will be turned over to a private company next year.

Four private groups are vying for the rights to operate sections of Highway 121 in Collin and Denton counties. The winning bid is expected to include payments of at least $2.5 billion to the region, with almost $2 billion of that in an upfront payment, Mr. Morris said.

"As we get closer to the bid deadline this spring, that number could get higher," he said.

There may be a learning curve for Denton County residents to adjust to the tolls and the electronic collection system, County Judge Mary Horn said. But there will be a payoff as toll payments funnel more than $1 billion to other Denton County projects.

Those expansion projects include Interstate 35E from Lewisville to Denton; FM720 from FM423 to Garza Lane; FM423 from Highway 121 to U.S. Highway 380; and sections of State Highway 114 and FM407.

"The money raised will stay right here to make improvements," Ms. Horn said. "We could have sat back and waited until 2040 for funding, but we got aggressive about solving our problems now."

Collin, Dallas and Tarrant counties also will receive a share of the upfront payment. It will be based on the number of Highway 121 users who live in those counties.

More toll sections

The 5.9-mile stretch of toll road has been open for three months, but no tolls were collected.

The Transportation Department said it needed more time to work out bugs in the new toll-collection equipment. Critics of Gov. Rick Perry said the delay was a ploy to avoid upsetting potential voters before the Nov. 7 election.

More sections of Highway 121 will open with tolls in the next few years. The segment from Old Denton east to the Dallas North Tollway should open as a toll road in 2008. Work continues on sections east of the tollway to Central Expressway, and that area should open fully in 2010.

Currently, there are no plans to place tolls on Highway 121 east of Central Expressway.

Other all-electronic roads in North Texas should soon follow. The state plans a 2009-10 opening for the State Highway 161 toll road in Grand Prairie.

The North Texas Tollway Authority also is considering an all-electronic toll road on Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth.

The planned Trans-Texas Corridor toll road that would run parallel to Interstate 35 also would feature only electronic toll collection.

Toll roads mark a shift in how transportation projects will be funded in the future, said Denton County Commissioner Cynthia White.

"People won't even think about it eventually," she said.


© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co