Friday, March 30, 2007

"Delay is not friendly to the region."

N. Texas needs $59B for roads, officials say

Local leaders want state to plan well for area's growth over 25 years
March 30, 2007

By JAKE BATSELL / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – North Texas is $59 billion short of paying the bill for the region's mushrooming traffic needs over the next 25 years, local leaders told state transportation commissioners Thursday.

About 100 city, county and transportation officials from North Texas made their annual pilgrimage to the Texas Transportation Commission, outlining plans to expand highways, toll roads and rail systems as the region's population swells from 6 million to 9 million over the next two decades.

With lawmakers weighing a two-year freeze on controversial private toll-road deals, local leaders stressed that any delays for projects in the pipeline will be costly for the region.

"We have to get people moving in the metroplex, or we will be in complete gridlock," said Dallas City Council member Linda Koop.

The backlash against private toll roads has been mounting since the Texas Department of Transportation unveiled a 50-year deal with the Spanish company Cintra to build and operate a toll road on State Highway 121 in Denton and Collin counties.

The deal includes a $2.1 billion upfront payment that will help pay for other road projects.

Costly delays

Critics say the lucrative half-century deals amount to selling the state's roads to the highest bidder. Bills are pending in the House and Senate that would place a two-year moratorium on private pay-road contracts.

But local and regional leaders cautioned Thursday that delays of any kind threaten to add millions in ever-rising construction costs.

Paul Wageman, board chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority, said costs are rising at a rate of $4 million a month for the eastern extension of the Bush Turnpike from Garland to Interstate 30.

That project's cost is currently estimated at $931 million.

Mr. Wageman asked commissioners to move quickly to approve revenue-sharing agreements for the Bush extension project.

"Delay is not friendly to the region," Mr. Wageman said.

Even if private toll roads proceed as planned, leaders said, North Texas is still running $58.6 billion behind in its transportation funding needs through 2030.

Transportation commissioners were receptive to the North Texas delegation's comments on Thursday, saying the Legislature has left them no choice but to seek new ways to pay for roads. Texas lawmakers have not raised the state's 20-cents-per-gallon gas tax since 1991.

Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said the challenge during the recent flap over toll roads has been "trying to explain how you balance some potential unknown possible loss of revenue against the known benefit today of building something that we couldn't otherwise build."

Filling the gaps

Lawmakers are considering bills this session that would reduce the state's reliance on toll roads for transportation funding. One bill would raise the state gas tax to more closely mirror inflation, while another would give cities the option to levy additional sales taxes for transit funding.

But with North Texas adding a million residents every seven years, local leaders said toll roads, high-occupancy-vehicle lanes and other nontraditional financing mechanisms will still be needed to fill the gap.

"We're not going to get rid of the congestion with 3.3 million more people coming to our region over the next 20 years," said Oscar Trevino, mayor of North Richland Hills. "But we can't just sit on our hands and do nothing."

Mr. Williamson agreed.

"The leadership of North Texas, they're not focused on how bad things are, they're focused on how we have the ability to solve our problems," he said. "They are united in using every tool available."

Transportation commissioners also voted Thursday to return $288 million to the federal government, which has asked states to send back previously authorized transportation funds to help support other national programs such as hurricane-response efforts and the war on terror.

In Texas, programs selected for cuts include road maintenance, air-quality projects and highway and bridge construction.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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