Saturday, March 17, 2007

"A growing number of lawmakers, worry that the state is moving too quickly on turning over state highways to private companies..."

Toll road legislation could hurt plans for Tarrant improvements

March 17, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Seven private companies have applied to manage one of the largest highway improvement projects in Tarrant County despite pending legislation that could jeopardize the deal.

Until otherwise notified, Texas Department of Transportation officials said they are moving forward with plans to hire private contractors for the $2 billion North Tarrant Express in the mid-cities area and the $762 million DFW Connector, formerly known as the Grapevine Funnel, near the north end of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

But as Thursday's deadline for applications on the North Tarrant Express passed, local transportation and civic leaders said they were worried that this project may not go forward as planned because of mounting anti-toll sentiment in the state.

Legislation has been introduced in the state Senate and House that would place a two-year moratorium on private contracts with toll operators in the state.

Both the North Tarrant Express, a 36.2-mile improvement project involving State Highway 183, Loop 820 and Interstate 35W, and the 16.2-mile DFW Connector would involve private contractors and would have toll and free lanes.

The application deadline for contractors on the DFW Connector is next month.

"We can't two more years on these projects," said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. "We need to move forward on this now.

"We've already been waiting on improvements to Northeast Loop 820 for four years – that's the busiest piece of 820 loop, and it will be the last to be improved."

Fighting moratorium

Meanwhile, Vic Suhm, executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, has sent an e-mail to hundreds of Tarrant County residents and business and civic leaders asking them to contact lawmakers and try to block the proposed moratorium.

"Placing even a two-year moratorium on [private contracts] would be a disaster for priority transportation projects in our regional mobility," he said.

Local leaders said they are lobbying lawmakers to exempt Tarrant County projects from the two-year ban, if it is approved. They said private contractors and toll projects are a way to get road projects done quicker because the state lacks the capital to pay for the improvements.

But critics, including a growing number of lawmakers, worry that the state is moving too quickly on turning over state highways to private companies, which could end up costing motorists excessive amounts in tolls down the road.

The Transportation Department so far has only one private contract, with the Spanish firm Cintra for the State Highway 130 toll road in the Austin area.

The state recently awarded a 50-year contract to the same firm to operate State Highway 121 in Collin and Denton counties as a toll road. But the contract has not been executed and could be held up by a moratorium, officials said.

Transportation Department officials said they were pleased that seven companies are vying for the two high-profile Tarrant County projects. Ten contractors bid on the State Highway 161 toll project in western Dallas County, which has yet to be awarded.

"We're pleased with the response," said Michael Peters, a spokesman for the Transportation Department in Tarrant County. "We knew there was a lot of interest in this project."

Collecting applications is the first step in the lengthy process of awarding a private contract.

A final contractor won't be identified until late this year or early next year.

DFW Connector

The DFW Connector, which will involve five new interchanges and seven roads and freeways around D/FW Airport, could begin in 2008. Public funding is available for most of this project, officials said.

The North Tarrant Express, with limited public funding earmarked, will be built in phases with the first section to begin in 2009, if a contract is executed, officials said.

The seven bidders include five Texas companies and two out-of-state firms. Only one bidder is from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Cintra did not bid on the project.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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