Thursday, March 16, 2006

"Eastern Metroplex drivers who already pay tolls would be footing the bill for a Fort Worth project."

Subsidies from private roads eyed

Mar. 16, 2006

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

PLANO - Money collected on private toll roads could subsidize North Texas Tollway Authority projects such as Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth, a transportation official said Wednesday.

A recent study by the tollway authority reported that tolls paid on Southwest Parkway will not cover the authority's cost of building it, partly because the road will be designed for a 50-mph speed limit -- too slow for many toll-paying customers.

As a result, some officials in Dallas and Collin counties say they oppose the project because eastern Metroplex drivers who already pay tolls would be footing the bill for a Fort Worth project. All tolls in the Metroplex essentially go into the same pot.

But Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, told tollway board members Wednesday that if private companies are invited to build toll roads in the Metroplex, they might be willing to pay millions of dollars upfront, which could then help the tollway authority make ends meet.

Later, Morris clarified that he didn't know whether there is still time to change the funding arrangement on Southwest Parkway, which is scheduled to be under construction by 2008 and completed by 2010. But future projects could include a combination of tollway authority and private funds, he said.

The tollway authority, Fort Worth and the Texas Department of Transportation have agreed to divide the estimated $825 million cost of Southwest Parkway. The 8-mile road will run from near Forest Park Boulevard west of downtown to Altamesa Boulevard in southwest Fort Worth.

Morris' visit was an attempt to soothe nerves over the issue of privately funded toll roads. State officials, noting a chronic shortage of tax dollars for highways, are encouraging companies to build roads and keep the tolls in exchange for large upfront payments -- millions, or perhaps billions, of dollars that can then be used to fund other road work.

Tollway authority officials, who serve at the pleasure of county commissioners courts, say they want to be the region's lead toll road agency.

Caught in the middle is the council of governments and its sister group, the Regional Transportation Council, which are under orders from the Texas Department of Transportation to approve written guidelines by April 16 explaining what level of tolls the Metroplex will accept.

Those guidelines will help private companies decide whether to bid on a toll project in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The tollway authority has traditionally charged about 10 cents per mile on highways such as the Dallas North Tollway and President George Bush Turnpike, although that rate is expected to climb to 12 cents by 2010. However, private companies like to charge what the market will bear, and in congested areas motorists could wind up paying double or triple what they're used to.

Morris is proposing that North Texas adopt a lower threshold, perhaps no more than 18 cents per mile during peak periods of congestion and 13 cents during less crowded times.

Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:


TxDOT, Cintra Zachry sue Attorney General to keep records in dark

Governments, businesses sue attorney general to keep records in dark

Some say lawsuits a tactic to delay negative news

March 16, 2006

Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

Under Texas open records laws, state and local governments cannot withhold information that has been requested unless the attorney general's office agrees that the records can legally remain secret. If the attorney general disagrees, the government or agency has two choices: release the documents or sue the state.

Most governments give in. A few choose to fight. Some get dragged into court anyway by third parties, typically businesses hoping to protect financial information in bids or contracts.

Last year, 76 such lawsuits were filed to keep information hidden from public view, up from 64 the previous year.

Some lawsuits argue weighty matters such as security. But if a decade's worth of trends continue, most will be dismissed or settled in the attorney general's favor, prompting complaints that many of the lawsuits are delaying tactics designed to kill or postpone negative news.

"I can't say everyone who sues the attorney general doesn't have a legitimate argument, (but) obviously, sometimes it's done as a stalling tactic," said lawyer Joel White, president of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

"Very frequently, if a story can be delayed for instance past an election or past a primary — or just delayed until it's no longer newsworthy — that's all the government agency is trying to accomplish," White said.

Brenda Loudermilk, chief of Attorney General Greg Abbott's open records litigation section, said most of the case law is well established, allowing her to dispose of most lawsuits by negotiating with the filer or asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

"I've been doing this at least 10 years, and I decided early on that most governmental bodies that sue the attorney general as plaintiffs are not going to push their case. Most time they file suit and sit back and wait because (then) they don't have to release the information," Loudermilk said.

About one in four lawsuits go to trial, such as a Houston firefighter's attempt to suppress phone conversations, taped by an undercover police officer in 2003, in which he tried to buy "untraceable" poison to kill his wife, court records show.

Abbott's office had ruled that the tapes, minus personal details about the wife, should be released. Former firefighter Richard Frank Thomas, joined by his forgiving wife, Jackie, disagreed.

"I thought this one can be disposed of easily," Loudermilk said. "There's nothing private about a man wanting to kill his wife, particularly when he was a public employee."

The judge agreed to dismiss the lawsuit but wanted to redact additional information. Loudermilk's department disagreed, so the case went to trial anyway, ending with a compromise and eventual release of the tapes.

Loudermilk estimates that since 2000, her section has won 35 court judgments and lost 12.

Two pending cases, though less flamboyant, could provide key legal decisions:

•The Department of Public Safety has sued to block the release of security camera videos taken at the Capitol.

The Texas Observer newspaper is seeking to verify reports that Dr. James Leininger, a leading Republican donor, met House members in a Capitol hallway to urge passage of a school vouchers bill. The DPS argues that releasing the videos would reveal camera placement and other security details.

•The Texas Department of Transportation, with developer Cintra Zachry, has sued Abbott to prevent release of conceptual plans for the Trans-Texas Corridor, a 600-mile swath of roads, rail and pipelines planned to run from Oklahoma to Mexico.

Cintra Zachry was awarded a $3.5 million planning contract, most of which was made public, minus the conceptual development and financial information. The company, which still must compete for the construction contract, claims the information could help competitors.

But Loudermilk said the contract could result in Cintra Zachry gaining work without competitive bidding. "A project this big, that's 50 years in the making and billions of dollars — shouldn't the public have a right to know how it's being developed and financed?" she said.

Incidently, because another state agency is involved, the attorney general's office is working both sides of the Cintra Zachry lawsuit. While Loudermilk's open records litigation section, comprising two lawyers and one part-time lawyer, represents Abbott, the agency's financial litigation division represents the highway department., 912-2569

Open records litigation in Texas

Governments and businesses that disagree with Texas attorney general rulings to release documents may sue to keep the information from the public.

To date, 265 lawsuits have been concluded, with 123 dismissed by a judge, 80 settled with the attorney general and 62 decided after a hearing.

Year Lawsuits filed
2000 37
2001 37
2002 55
2003 45
2004 64
2005 76
2006* 11

*Through February

Source: Texas attorney general's office

Sunshine Week

The Austin American-Statesman continues a series of stories examining public access to government records and meetings as part of Sunshine Week, an annual effort by newspapers and other media to focus on the health of open government.

© 2005 Austin American-Statesman:


"What's at stake could affect toll road users for decades."

Battle Over North Texas Tollroads Continue

Mar 16, 2006

Jack Fink Reporting
CBS 11 News
Dallas-Fort Worth
Copyright 2006

(CBS 11 News) NORTH TEXAS The battle over north Texas toll roads is heating up again. A much publicized meeting between four area counties to iron out differences has been cancelled.

Some local leaders call it a setback.

What's at stake could affect toll road users for decades.

As CBS 11 News first reported last November, the leaders of Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, and Denton Counties have been feuding over who will build future toll roads and how much you will pay to use them.

And a compromise doesn’t appear to be close, since next week's meeting was cancelled, Tarrant County pulled out.

"It sounded as though what they were trying to do is get together and decide on policy for the North Texas Tollway Authority, and I really don't believe it's the county's responsibility to do that,” said Glen Whitley, Tarrant County Commissioner.

Dallas County Commissioner Maureen Dickey says the cancellation surprised her. She says the counties should cooperate for the common good.

There are two main disagreements.

Dallas and Collin County leaders say Fort Worth's Southwest Parkway toll road won't pay for itself and will be unfairly subsidized by toll road users in their counties.

The North Texas Tollway Authority has voted to spread the cost of the road more evenly among the counties.

Collin County Judge Ron Harris acknowledges the counties need to work together.

“But working together is a whole lot different than highway robbery,” Judge Harris said.

Another disagreement centers on the new State Highway 121 toll road.

Collin County leaders want the NTTA o build and operate their portion of the road.

Denton County leaders and the Texas Department of Transportation, favor a private firm to build their portion.

Tarrant County Commissioner Whitley believes the regional transportation council should have the final say over these issues. But Judge Harris says Tarrant County needs to pay for its own toll roads.

© 2006 CBS Stations Group of Texas


The Devils in the Details

With toll roads, the devils in the details could be astounding


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

Two decades of white-knuckle drives to Austin on Interstate 35 are proof that highway work isn't a quick endeavor. But what few realize is that planning started years before construction, and Texas Department of Transportation planners have never stopped altering and tweaking their plans.

It makes sense. Big highway projects can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and permanently change communities.

But other things to consider are that a major highway built to nowhere will, in time, make it somewhere because a highway goes there. Big roads can defy the laws of supply and demand. Planners often warn against trying to "build your way out of congestion" because building a highway might actually increase demand and necessitate even greater expansion.

Phillip Russell, director of TxDOT's Turnpike Authority Division, is now busily working on details for Texas' regional toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor.

With new powers granted by the Legislature, TxDOT's dependence on fuel taxes to fund road building will decline as reliance on tolls — collected by the state and private-sector concessionaires — increases.

Private-sector money, TxDOT officials say, will accelerate regional projects and fund construction of the Trans Texas Corridor, whose 1,200-foot-wide right of way — with tolled lanes, rails for commuter and cargo trains, and right of way for utilities — will crisscross the state.

But the conceptual map, which depicts the potential quarter-mile-wide routes within 50-mile-wide swaths, has so worried farmers, ranchers, wildlife conservationists, water rights activists and environmentalists that they have coalesced to oppose the project, and toll-roads in general.

"You have to understand that the Trans Texas Corridor will be built as needed and as private-sector funding makes it feasible," Russell says, adding that, so far, TxDOT has awarded only one TTC contract, a $3.5 million pact with Cintra-Zachry to develop plans for the first leg, which will eventually link Oklahoma and Mexico.

All toll road contracts, Russell emphasizes, will include an option for Texas to buy the road back, a seemingly pointless gesture because if the state can't afford to build the roads now, how will it afford to buy them back? Russell is also frank about why investors would want into such deals.

"Are they willing to take all this risk out of the goodness of their hearts? Of course not," he says. "Clearly, they want a return and they want to be paid back."

He also is clear about another little-mentioned element likely to be part of toll road bond issues: Underwriters will probably require limits on options for people who choose not to pay tolls.

"Wall Street wants to know they'll get paid," he says of the no-compete clauses, but adds that discussions with potential investors lead him to believe that the bankers will allow Texas to build competitive commuter rail and roads "already on our 25-year plans."

But with that reassurance — and realizing how inexact planning can be — TxDOT's planners better have the finest crystal balls available, because such constraints mean that regardless of unforeseen changes, only those toll-free roads already in the plans will be allowed over the next 25 years.

And since toll road bonds won't mature for 40 years, after year 25 it would be 15 more years before the state could build competing roads for people to take toll-free.

Do we really want this?

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

ETC puts Fran O'Connor in the HOT lane

Fran O'Connor Joins ETC as Vice President of Operations

March 15, 2006

Business Wire
Copyright 2006

RICHARDSON, Texas-- Electronic Transaction Consultants ("ETC") today announced that respected industry professional, Francis "Fran" O'Connor has joined the Company as Vice President of Operations. In this position, Mr. O'Connor will help lead ETC's operations and service offerings for ETC's current and future customers.

Tim Gallagher, ETC's Managing Director, stated, "Fran's expertise in successfully developing, delivering and managing large-scale, standard-setting toll operations is highly regarded in our industry. Having Fran join the ETC team underscores our deep commitment to being a premier service partner to our customers."

"ETC has a well-deserved reputation for its outstanding customer-service ethic as well as for delivering truly innovative solutions for the transportation industry," commented Mr. O'Connor. "The Company has enabled its customers to achieve international recognition for advancements in the toll industry. Given my extensive background in toll operations, I have a great appreciation for the importance of this high level of customer focus and am delighted to join such an organization."

Mr. O'Connor's experience includes managing toll and transit customer service operations for some of the nation's largest toll authorities, including many of the agencies participating in the E-ZPass toll collection system, the interoperable electronic toll collection system used on many of the toll bridges and toll roads in the eastern United States.

Prior to joining ETC, Mr. O'Connor served in leadership positions with Affiliated Computer Systems, Inc. (NYSE:ACS), most recently as Vice President, Electronic Toll Collection, ACS State and Local Solutions TSS. Prior to joining ACS, Mr. O'Connor worked with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority for 16 years in various levels of management, culminating as Deputy Director of Electronic Toll Collection. He managed and directed the opening of the E-ZPass Customer Service Center on the New Jersey Highway Authority, the South Jersey Transportation Authority, and the Delaware Department of Transportation.

About ETC:

Recognized for its innovation in the toll industry, ETC successfully delivered the system design and integration for the first all-electronic, open road toll facility in the U.S.; has designed and implemented technically complex 4+ express ORT lanes, and created advanced solutions for HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes. ETC's systems provide interoperability between geographically dispersed toll facilities, airports, parking, and commercial transportation operations. ETC's team introduced the industry's first Web-based toll solution suite, the RITE(R) Solution, which includes modules for Customer Service Center operations, Violation Processing Center, Audit & Reconciliation Host, Interoperability, Facility Server, and Lane Controller. More information on the Company can be found at

For further information: Ted Hull-Ryde, Director of Special Projects, 214-615-2318, or

© Business Wire 2006


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

"Poor leadership and our leaders' kowtowing to special interests created the claimed need for toll roads."

Texas' fast track to toll roads leaves unanswered questions


Carlos Guerra:
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

Many Texans are now realizing that state leaders plan to put miles of toll roads into their not-so-distant future. But most still don't realize that these plans have been years in the making, and that poor leadership and/or our leaders' kowtowing to special interests created the claimed need for toll roads.

Texas' first fuel tax — 1 cent-per-gallon of gasoline — was levied in 1923 to pay for roads needed for the state's growing motor vehicle fleet, and was extended to diesel and liquefied petroleum gas in 1933. It remained a relatively low tax until it was raised to 10 cents per gallon in 1984; 15 cents in 1987; and, most recently, 20 cents in 1991. Today, a dime of the 20-cent tax pays for state roads, a nickel for county roads and the last nickel goes to public schools.

And though its revenues were raided several times to fund nonroad-related needs, Texas' fuel tax — and a similar federal levy — paid for building and maintaining almost all of our immense asphalt web, which was built as we could afford it.

But increasingly, Texas Department of Transportation officials have claimed that gas taxes can't meet needs expanded by population growth, increased NAFTA truck traffic and inflation.

"Our answer to people wanting mobility (has been), 'We'll get to you when we get to you,'" says David Casteel, TxDOT's local district engineer. "We have told them, 'When we get some money together, we'll build your piece of road,' and tried to squeeze as much local funding as we could."

State transportation officials also say that since Texas' highway system and inflation have never stopped growing, maintenance is progressively eating up more of the money.

In 2003 and 2005, two key changes to the Transportation code allowed TxDOT to charge drivers "user fees" more easily, and empowered the agency to cut deals with private-sector firms to fund roads on state-seized land in return for paying the state a fee.

These contractors will recoup their investment — and a tidy, long-term return — by collecting tolls for very long periods of time.

The contractors' up-front investments, concession fees, and perhaps a cut of toll revenues for the state, the reasoning goes, will make a lot of money available for other transportation needs.

TxDOT critics counter that building roads on land purchased with gas taxes, and then tolling them is double taxation, and the imposition of an onerous new tax that will put billions into well-connected, private-sector pockets.

Nor do detractors buy into TxDOT's assertions that it hasn't enough money, or that so many more highway miles are desperately needed.

Should you double the size of the church to accommodate attendance for Easter services, they ask.

Critics also are putting pencils to the toll plans. A 20 cent-per-gallon tax for a vehicle that gets 20 mpg equals a penny per mile, one critic reasoned. But every penny-per-mile toll that is added atop that tax would effectively double the fuel tax on that road.

"The gas tax could increase 50 percent, and that would still cost only $0.015 per mile," he concluded. "Big deal!"

And before accepting that tolls are an inescapable reality, we also should consider that in 1991, when our gas tax rose to 20 cents, gasoline was $1.11 cents per gallon nationally, and in Texas it was as low as 80 cents.

Should we still collect only 20 cents for gasoline that now often surpasses $2.50 a gallon?

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


Monday, March 13, 2006

Down the road: "Driving Ed Bluestein and Texas 71 will cost you about $2 each way. "

Time is coming for what seemed like good idea: to toll later.

March 13, 2006

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

So, it's 2009.

You live in Northeast Austin and work in Oak Hill, and for years, you've been taking the improved Ed Bluestein Boulevard (U.S. 183 east of Interstate 35) and Texas 71 to work. You've been slogging through all that muck at the big 183/71 interchange project seemingly forever, but it's finally almost done.

Years ago, you noticed some signs saying the roads would eventually have tolls. But those signs have long since blended into the landscape.

Then you open up the newspaper one day and read this: Starting next month, driving Ed Bluestein and Texas 71 will cost you about $2 each way. What?!

As things stand now, something like that will occur, date uncertain. And that situation, the ugly offspring of 2004's bellicose toll road debate, will create a ticklish political situation, to say the least.

What happened, if you've forgotten or missed it to begin with, is that the Texas Department of Transportation (and its junior partner, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority) in April 2004 unveiled a seven-road, $2.2 billion toll road plan that contemplated expanding six Austin roads, building a seventh and charging tolls on the express lanes. Access roads would be free.

But improvements on three of those roads — including Ed Bluestein and Texas 71 — were already under way. After the several-month fracas that ensued, two roads were out of the plan, both of them in West Austin.

To keep East Austin representatives in support, the plan's authors agreed that Ed Bluestein and Texas 71 improvements would open at no charge.

The tolls wouldn't begin, according to the January 2005 vote by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board, until the entire semicircle from I-35 on the north to I-35 on the south was completed.

That includes sections in East Austin on Ed Bluestein and Texas 71 where work should be completed later this year. But it also includes other parts of Ed Bluestein and the 183/71 interchange where construction is nowhere close to beginning.

And when work does start, it will take several years.

So you could have a situation in which express lanes will be free for a very, very long time. Then not free.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

What might have made it appear bearable, from a politician's point of view, is that going from free to not-free will require no more votes by CAMPO.

The electronic toll equipment, including overhead gantries with the gadgets to read toll tags, will already be in place. So the mobility authority, which is supposed to run the roads, will simply have to flip the switch, as it were.

But you know it won't be that simple. A very determined anti-toll machinery has grown up around Austin. The CAMPO members are all listed on the Internet, and they all have office phones.

Suggestions are already circulating that perhaps Ed Bluestein and Texas 71 should be taken out of the plan completely. Look for that idea to pick up momentum, later if not sooner.

Getting There appears Mondays. For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at 445-3698 or

© 2005 Austin American-Statesman:


Sunday, March 12, 2006

"This issue is about cronyism and big bucks, multidecade concessions, and which international corporation will get them."

Toll road debate follows the special interests in big-bucks lane


Carlos Guerra:
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

If Texans are rancorously debating toll roads — an issue likely to decide November's governor's election — there are four good reasons for it.

Texas' population exploded during the 1990s, and the growth will continue for at least 25 years. International trade also increased traffic to and from Mexico.

And over that decade, highway funding shrunk so that now, more than half of the state's gasoline taxes pay for maintenance of Texas' enormous highway system.

But clearly, the biggest reason we're debating toll roads is that Texans love to travel Texas' miles and miles, and special interests want the big bucks from building multibillion-dollar highways, and even bigger bucks from charging people to drive on them over the next 50 to 99 years.

Ric Williamson, head of the Texas Transportation Commission, is often vilified for asserting that within our lifetime most Texas highways will be toll roads. Almost equally quoted is the Hobson's choice he offered: "It's either toll roads, slow roads or no roads."

But are those our only real choices? Of course not.

This issue is about cronyism and big bucks, multidecade concessions, and which international corporation will get them, that's all.

David Casteel is the Texas Department of Transportation's district engineer for the San Antonio and Laredo districts. TxDOT, he emphasizes, doesn't write Texas' public policies regarding highways, or even transportation. It takes orders from the Legislature and the Texas Transportation Commission, and increasingly, orders from the metropolitan planning organizations that now determine how transportation resources are spent locally.

Additionally, TxDOT's newest bosses are new regional mobility authorities that the Legislature empowered to decide where toll roads are built, by whom, and how much they should toll.

Casteel says that more roadway lane miles are needed now, and that population and traffic growth have overtaken TxDOT's budget, which is largely funded by a state tax on gasoline.

"We were on a pay-as-you go system, so our answer was wait, wait, wait and when we get the money we will build your road," he says. "But in that time, congestion got worse; we have one of the fastest rates of growth for congestion."

The biggest reason Texas can't keep up with increased traffic is that TxDOT'S funding hasn't kept up with population growth or even inflation, he says, and gas taxes have been raided during lean years to balance budgets.

"The last time the gas tax was raised was in 1991, when it was raised a nickel (to 20 cents per gallon) and it wasn't indexed to inflation," Casteel says.

"During the past 25 years, at the state level, more than $10 billion has been used from the state gas tax for other purposes, and during that time, population increased 67 percent in Texas and we were only able to add 8 percent more lane miles, so the math is pretty simple."

But is tolling 90 percent of our new and existing highways the answer?

In future columns, we will explore if a higher gasoline tax is better than tolls computed per-mile and increased as congestion rises; if absolutely necessary toll roads shouldn't be owned by the state instead of a private concern; and why privately operated toll road deals will guarantee that toll-free roads, by contract, will be left to deteriorate and virtually vanish.

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


"Tolls increasingly will be levied on motorists to help pay for major road projects."

Plans, trains and automobiles

Sun, Mar. 12, 2006

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

In the next few decades, the ever-growing Dallas-Fort Worth area could experience striking changes in the way that people and goods move.

North Central Texas' population has been ballooning faster than the transportation infrastructure -- a situation akin to that of a growing middle-schooler whose old jeans don't quite fit anymore.

With the Metroplex expected to add about 4 million people by 2030, it's hard to imagine the hellish traffic jams that we'll face in the future unless we take giant steps to reverse course. New transportation projects and strategies are being hashed out now that might someday save us from the bumper-to-bumper bummer of growing gridlock.

Here are examples of projects already in the works or being contemplated by state, regional and local officials:

The Trans-Texas Corridor's TTC-35 segment is proposed to run from the Oklahoma border to the Metroplex and on to the Mexican border. Its primary goal is to relieve congestion on packed Interstate 35 and in the big cities through which it passes (Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio). Motorists can expect to pay sizable tolls on the new, less clogged, higher-speed route.

Some stretches of TTC-35 might include -- within a broad corridor up to 1,200 feet wide -- separate lanes for passenger vehicles and large freight trucks, freight railways, high-speed passenger rail and conduits for water lines, oil and natural gas pipelines, transmission of electricity and broadband.

A fully developed TTC-35 system in the Metroplex could include a gigantic outer loop with separate corridors for toll-paying autos traveling 65 to 70 miles per hour, freight trains and 18-wheelers.

The outer loop, as envisioned by the North Central Texas Council of Governments (COG), would run through the northern part of Denton and Collin counties, an eastern segment of Wise County, along the Tarrant County-Parker County border, through the northern half of Johnson and Ellis counties and around the eastern edge of Dallas County.

A high-speed rail line could shoot northward between Dallas and Fort Worth to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. The line might roughly parallel Texas 360, which could be extended southward toward Hillsboro.

Outlying rail corridors could be developed to reroute much of the freight train traffic around Fort Worth and Dallas, enabling local rail freight to move more quickly and reducing bottlenecks that urban motorists face at numerous rail crossings.

Space could be freed up on older central-city rail corridors for use by commuter rail lines. This expanded use of mass transit would help offset expected increases in the number of passenger vehicles clogging our roads as a result of population growth.

Existing railroad tracks could be upgraded and additional sets of tracks installed in long-established rail corridors. This could result in faster movement of freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains traveling to and from Dallas-Fort Worth.

High-speed intercity passenger rail -- perhaps bullet trains going 200 mph -- could connect Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Bryan-College Station and Houston. In addition, this high-speed network could be connected with federally designated high-speed rail corridors running through the Southeastern U.S. and on to New England.

A regional authority might be created to foster a greatly expanded Metroplex system of light rail (such as Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or DART, already operates) and commuter rail (such as the Trinity Railway Express jointly operated by DART and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, or The T).

New commuter rail lines might run from Fort Worth to D/FW Airport along the old Cotton Belt Railroad route; from downtown Fort Worth to the city's southwest quadrant; and from Fort Worth eastward through Arlington and Grand Prairie and on to Dallas via Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

Future commuters also could travel by rail from Denton to Carrollton to downtown Dallas. Outlying cities throughout the Metroplex also have expressed interest in commuter rail service. For example, officials in the Johnson County cities of Cleburne, Joshua, Crowley and Burleson have expressed interest in gaining commuter rail service that would link them to Fort Worth and Dallas.

Construction of new roads -- as well as expansions of and improvements to existing ones -- will continue to be an important means of countering gridlock. For example, a $762 million makeover of the Grapevine Funnel will help relieve congestion on the seven highways that converge between D/FW Airport and Lake Grapevine.

Dedicated lanes for 18-wheelers could be established on some major Metroplex roads, in part as a safety measure to separate them from smaller passenger vehicles.

Progressive development strategies are increasingly being embraced by elected officials and planners who have come to realize that taming the region's transportation and air quality problems involves more than merely building more roads or constructing new commuter rail lines.

There's a major push, buttressed by federal grant money, for creation of more "sustainable development" -- development that will remain functional even in the wake of a continued population explosion and increased gridlock.

Urban "mixed-use" developments that include higher-density housing, job hubs, retail stores, restaurants, public schools, green space and mass transit stops all in one area can dramatically reduce the amount of driving that people do for work, shopping, education, dining and entertainment.

Some of the contemplated developments in transportation are virtually certain or at least likely to become reality. Others might be only partially realized or never go beyond the scope of brainstorming sessions.

Some projects could be scrapped or pared back as a result of high costs, political opposition, the expense and difficulty of acquiring right of way, or slower-than-expected population growth that diminishes the amount of additional transportation infrastructure needed.

One budding trend is likely to continue: Tolls increasingly will be levied on motorists to help pay for major road projects, especially if skittish state elected officials continue to believe that raising the modest state gasoline tax of 20 cents per gallon is political suicide.

The rate of population growth will be a primary factor in determining how many new roads and mass-transit routes are needed. The North Central Texas COG has forecast that the population of a 10-county Metroplex area will explode from fewer than 5.1 million residents in 2000 to more than 9.1 million by 2030.

In terms of transportation developments, Metroplex residents should learn more about the shape of things to come within the next several years, after the likely routes of key segments of the TTC-35 corridor are more solidly established and related transportation projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are mapped out more fully.

Corridor considerations

The Trans-Texas Corridor, fervently backed by Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford, is proposed to help relieve gridlock in the state's largest cities by diverting substantial volumes of traffic, freight and utilities around them.

Some segments of the proposed statewide Trans-Texas Corridor system might not be completed for several decades -- or perhaps might never be built, as a result of insufficient funding, discouraging cost-benefit analyses, opposition by rural landowners or other factors. But the initial steps in the corridor's development are being taken.

A new Central Texas highway, Texas 130, running east of Interstate 35 and the Austin area, is under construction and could become part of the TTC-35 system. A portion of Texas 130 is expected to open next year.

Sometime soon, presumably this month or next, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration are expected to release a report suggesting a proposed general route for the primary 600-mile TTC-35 corridor from the Oklahoma border to the Metroplex and on to the Mexican border.

Currently, the path that the TTC-35 corridor would take has been restricted to a 50-mile-wide swath.

The new report would narrow the proposed path to a 10-mile-wide "study corridor" that would be discussed beginning in May in more than 50 public hearings in North Central Texas and other areas along the suggested corridor route.

After the hearings, a final 10-mile-wide study corridor could be approved in 2007 for the 600-mile primary corridor. Following that, specific routes for various segments of the corridor would be determined at varying times in coming years. It could take three to five years to determine the specific route for a particular segment .

The Trans-Texas Corridor is to be constructed gradually, as transportation needs dictate. Although some segments could be under construction within five to 10 years, the full statewide corridor system might not be completed for 40 to 50 years -- and some portions might never be built.

Future additions to the TTC-35 system, beyond the 600-mile primary corridor, eventually could be developed in the Metroplex.

The players

Under a plan accepted by the Texas Transportation Commission in December 2004, Madrid-based Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction are the lead partners in a venture in which they propose to use $6 billion in private investment to build a 316-mile, four-lane toll road segment of the TTC-35 corridor from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to San Antonio and also pay a $1.2 billion concession fee that the state could use to help pay for related transportation projects. In exchange, Cintra-Zachry would collect tolls on the TTC-35 segment for 50 years. But TxDOT has not approved a binding construction contract with Cintra and Zachry.

Cintra-Zachry has proposed that the 600-mile TTC-35 primary corridor run from the Oklahoma border, around the southeast edge of Dallas, southward east of Hillsboro and the existing Interstate 35, then intersect with the new Texas 130 northeast of Georgetown and go on to the San Antonio area and the Mexican border.

A potential secondary route for TTC-35 could go west around Tarrant County to provide a major new traffic artery around the western half of the Metroplex.

But the Cintra-Zachry team has not proposed that TTC-35 include a leg running up the middle of the Metroplex between Fort Worth and Dallas and on to D/FW Airport, as urged by COG's Regional Transportation Council (RTC), which includes elected officials from 16 counties.

Although TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration are the primary government agencies involved with the planning and development of TTC-35, they should give heavy consideration to the opinions of Metroplex political and civic leaders -- most notably COG and the RTC.

In a resolution passed 13 months ago, the RTC endorsed a variety of measures designed to relieve passenger vehicle, freight truck and freight rail congestion in the Metroplex and encourage the expansion of mass transit (especially high-speed rail and urban commuter rail).

In accord with the resolution, COG staffers have formulated general concepts and illustrations of how four transportation modes -- freight rail, auto, truck and passenger rail -- might be developed as components of the TTC-35 system or links to it .

The RTC urges that the proposed TTC-35 corridor proceed northward between Fort Worth and Dallas, running along the general path of an extended Texas 360 and including high-speed rail running to D/FW Airport.

The RTC suggests developing freight corridors -- for both truck and rail freight -- that could be part of the TTC-35 system and run in a general east-west direction south of Fort Worth and Dallas and then around the west edge of Tarrant County and east edge of Dallas County as they extended northward. These "bypass" corridors could become part of the huge outer loop that also would let passenger vehicles travel swiftly around Dallas, Fort Worth and other Metroplex cities.

The outlying freight rail corridor could help relieve congestion at Tower 55, a rail hub on the southeast edge of downtown Fort Worth where the north-south Burlington Northern Santa Fe and east-west Union Pacific tracks meet at grade to form one of the worst train choke points in the nation. ("At grade" means that the tracks intersect on the same level rather than one passing over the other.)

The congestion at Tower 55 is akin to the nightmarish auto and truck gridlock that would occur if there were a traffic stoplight at Interstates 35W and 30 in downtown Fort Worth, said Mike Sims, a COG senior program manager for transportation.

"Most rail people say [Tower 55] is the busiest rail intersection at grade west of the Mississippi," Sims said.

In addition to the proposal to help relieve Tower 55's rail jam by rerouting many freight trains around the Metroplex, there has been talk of digging a deep, subsurface north-south trench through which Burlington Northern trains could travel at a level under the Tower 55 bottleneck.

But a trench running from the north edge of downtown Fort Worth to the city's Medical District might cost more than $800 million.

Diverting more freight trains around the Metroplex also could route potentially hazardous cargo outside heavily populated areas.

Creation of a new state rail relocation fund, authorized by Texas voters with the passage of a constitutional amendment in November, could provide a financing mechanism for some rail projects.

The overarching goal of many transportation planners is to create a much more seamless system that better links different travel modes so that riding a bus or commuter train becomes a convenient and feasible alternative for more North Central Texas residents.

State legislation adopted in recent years has created new financing opportunities for transportation projects, particularly for toll roads developed through newly created regional mobility authorities or public-private partnerships such as TxDOT's proposed coupling with Cintra-Zachry.

Many local elected officials would like a more reliable, ongoing funding source such as a dedicated sales tax to finance expanded regional rail transit. But some statewide elected officials and legislators have balked at supporting legislation to enable that.

Doing nothing could prove disastrous. The average Metroplex motorist already spends 60 hours annually stuck in traffic, the equivalent of one-and-a- half full workweeks, according to the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.

Unless the transportation system sees major gridlock-busting improvements, congestion could get far worse during the next 20 years, particularly in fast-growing Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

Approximately $100 billion will be needed to effectively address Metroplex transportation needs and keep congestion from getting worse by 2025, the RTC has estimated.

Going forward, local, state and federal officials need to communicate more effectively and strive to get on the same page in formulating solutions for North Central Texas' transportation headaches.

As state and federal officials move toward selecting a more specific proposed route for the TTC-35 system in the Metroplex, they should strongly consider the RTC recommendation that a corridor run up the region's middle between Fort Worth and Dallas.

Even if officials at all levels cooperate fully in coming years, it will be difficult to find effective and affordable means of meeting all the pressing transportation needs of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Minus such cooperation, it probably will prove impossible.


To learn more

North Central Texas Council of Governments, Transportation Issues:

Trans-Texas Corridor:

Texas Department of Transportation:

Jack Z. Smith is a Star-Telegram editorial writer. (817) 390-7724
© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram: