Thursday, March 08, 2007

"We must closely evaluate private toll contracts before we sign away half a century of control of our transportation system."

Mayor pushes back on toll ban


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 such a ban was filed Tuesday in Austin and has strong support in the Senate.

North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino says it's time to hold North Texas lawmakers accountable for, he said, joining the anti-toll-road fervor and endangering Metroplex road projects.

The backers

The bill was filed by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and co-signed 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.

While sentiment against toll roads has swirled statewide, particularly about the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, Metroplex leaders have sought toll financing for projects that won't get enough gas-tax funding for many years.

Texas Department of Transportation officials have already mapped out spending for gas-tax money through 2015, and the Tarrant County projects aren't fully funded.

The toll-road argument

But Transportation Department officials say that if they invite private companies to invest money in roads, Tarrant County's projects can be built in just a few years. The agency is seeking private bidders to collect tolls on express lanes on I-35W, Loop 820 and Airport Freeway for up to 50 years.

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

Loss of control

But Nichols' bill could halt 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."

Nichols was a champion of toll roads and privatization when he was on the Texas Transportation Commission from 1997 to 2006.

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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