Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"Bill calling for a two-year ban has strong support in the Senate."

Two-year ban on toll roads sought

March 07, 2007

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

FORT WORTH -- Interstate 35W, Loop 820 and Airport Freeway would not be expanded until 2015 at the earliest if a two-year ban on toll roads is approved by the state Legislature, area leaders say.

A bill calling for a two-year ban was filed Tuesday and has strong support in the Senate.

North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino says it’s time to hold the Metroplex’s lawmakers accountable for jumping on the anti-toll road bandwagon and endangering Metroplex road projects.

The bill was filed by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and cosigned by 25 of 31 Senate members, including Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, John Carona, R-Dallas and Royce West, D-Dallas.

“Any senator or state representative who gets on the bandwagon should be told we don’t appreciate it. It goes against the region’s mobility plan. We’re gridlocked,” Trevino, chairman of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, said Wednesday morning.

Noting that Shapiro walked out of a Senate committee meeting last week while Metroplex leaders were making a presentation in Austin, Trevino added: “If they don’t want to hear from the region, what are they doing down there?”

While anti-toll road sentiment has swirled statewide, particularly on the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, Metroplex leaders have sought toll financing for projects that aren’t scheduled to receive sufficient gas-tax funding.

Texas Department of Transportation officials have already mapped out how to spend their gas-tax money through 2015 and the Tarrant County projects aren’t fully funded.

But the agency is currently seeking private bidders to come forward with investment money, and in exchange collect tolls on express lanes on I-35W, Loop 820 and Airport Freeway for up to 50 years.

Privately run toll lanes also have been proposed for the Texas 114/121 DFW Connector project in Grapevine, scheduled to be under construction early next year.

But Nichols’ bill could halt much, if not all, of that work.

“We must closely evaluate private toll contracts before we sign away half a century of control of our transportation system. Many provisions in recent toll contracts are alarming,” Nichols said in a statement. “These roads were built with public money for public use. Converting existing roads to toll roads would break a promise to taxpayers. No one should have to worry that the roads they drive on today will be tolled tomorrow. Tolling provides a valuable tool for expansion but should be reserved to add new capacity.”

Ironically, Nichols was a champion of toll roads and privatization during his term as a member of the Texas Transportation Commission from 1997-2006, when he resigned to run for the state Senate.

Hillwood executive Russell Laughlin said Metroplex leaders should ask senators to at least exempt the region’s plans from a two-year ban.

Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816

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