Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Many lawmakers regret voting in 2003 to give the Transportation Department more power."

Toll backlash could delay projects here

Feb. 28, 2007

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

An anti-toll road sentiment is sweeping through Austin, and Tarrant County officials worry that key projects such as the expansion of Interstate 35W, Northeast Loop 820 and Airport Freeway could be delayed for years.

"We're going to take the biggest hit if there's any kind of moratorium on toll roads," said North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino. "The 820 project has already been delayed for so many years. If there's a toll road backlash, it won't answer our congestion problems today, or for that matter the next five years."

A transportation hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Austin, and several dozen Metroplex officials plan to attend. Crowds of toll road opponents may attend, too, joined by legislators who feel that the Texas Department of Transportation has become too powerful and autonomous in pushing for toll roads.

Opposition to toll roads, especially the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor from North Texas to San Antonio, has been brewing for several years in parts of the state.

But Tarrant County officials generally have been more supportive of the Transportation Department's -- and by extension Gov. Rick Perry's -- plans to use private financing and toll collection as a way to offset gas taxes and build roads more quickly.

As a result, plans to expand I-35W, 820 and Airport Freeway have been pushed to the front burner, and the Transportation Department is seeking private bidders to build and manage new toll lanes on those roads.

But several bills could postpone those plans, including a provision that would roll back the department's ability to enter into development agreements with private companies, and another that would impose a two-year moratorium on new toll roads.

Already-approved projects such as Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth and the Texas 114/121 DFW Connector in Grapevine, both of which are scheduled to be under construction early next year, could be delayed, too.

Also, a state audit released last week was highly critical of Trans-Texas, saying that because of the transportation department's accounting weaknesses, the public won't be able to determine how much the project actually costs.

Legislators may be willing to accept a gas tax increase of roughly 8 cents a gallon as an alternative to toll financing, Vic Suhm, director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, told members during a recent meeting.

Suhm cited a recent report by Perry's business council that concluded that a gas tax increase could raise enough money to build the roads the Transportation Department wants.

Department officials have said that the report is flawed and that it would take a gas tax increase of about $1.40 a gallon to raise enough money, which is why alternative funding must be found.

The price of gasoline in Texas now includes a state tax of 20 cents a gallon and federal tax of 18.4 cents a gallon.

Suhm told Tarrant County leaders that the anti-toll road sentiment is very real and could have lasting impact on legislation passed this session. He suggested that they take gas tax proposals seriously and not necessarily fight them.

Many lawmakers regret voting in 2003 to give the Transportation Department more power, Suhm said.

"There is a sense of frustration among the legislators," Suhm said. "They are saying, 'We were sure hurried, and now we're hearing from our constituents who don't want toll roads, and we don't want our agricultural land taken,' and that sentiment is very much out there."

Maribel Chavez, the department's Fort Worth district engineer, urged Tarrant County leaders not to accept a gas-tax increase in lieu of private financing and tolls.

"It can't just be either the private investment or the gas tax," she said. "It has to be both of them."

Transportation showdown

The future of toll roads and other transportation plans will be the subject of a hearing Thursday by the state Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. The meeting in Austin will be broadcast live online.

8:30 a.m. Thursday

Capitol Extension Auditorium, room E1.004

SOURCE: Texas Senate
Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816

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