Thursday, March 08, 2007

"When the legislation was approved for the TTC we didn’t realize we were giving up all we gave up. We should have asked more questions."

Nelson defends road work delay


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

State Sen. Jane Nelson says road work in Tarrant County may need to be delayed to ensure that the Texas Department of Transportation gets it right.

She’s concerned about contracts with private toll road companies and has cosigned legislation to ban new toll projects for two years.

The Lewisville Republican’s district includes the Texas 114/121 DFW Connector in Grapevine and the 35W/820/183 North Tarrant Express.

Both projects, which would include privately-run toll lanes, are scheduled to be under way next year but would be delayed by a moratorium.

“Yes, we want to unclog our highways,” Nelson said Thursday in a phone interview. “But I am worried that in our haste to get these roads built we are signing them away for the next 50 years. We have no disagreement about our transportation needs. My concern is the rush to toll so many roads without fully understanding what the state is giving up when we enter into these contracts. The more I have learned, the more concerned I have become.”

The roads making up the DFW Connector and North Tarrant Express, which together carry more than a half-million cars per day, have been over capacity for two decades.

Without tolls, Tarrant County leaders say expansion could be delayed until 2015 or longer because of a lack of gas-tax funding.

To fill that gap, the Transportation Department is seeking to hire private companies, who would then use private investment money to build toll express lanes, and collect the tolls for up to 50 years. But the bill cosigned by Nelson would halt those projects, and other toll road proposals, until September 2009.

The bill is authored by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and cosigned by 25 of 31 senators. Most Metroplex senators signed the bill, although Republican lawmakers Chris Harris of Arlington and Kim Brimer of Fort Worth did not.

Leaders from area cities and counties say supporting the moratorium is tantamount to killing Metroplex toll projects planned for years.

But Nelson and other critics of TxDOT say the agency has been too quick to enter into contacts that guarantee long-term profits for companies while reducing the state’s own authority to govern roads. For example, she said, companies are granted non-compete clauses that prohibit the state from building non-toll roads.

But the payoff for giving up those powers is big. TxDOT recently announced an agreement to lease Texas 121 in Denton and Collin counties to Cintra, a Spanish firm that has agreed to pay $2.8 billion in fees and toll sharing to build other projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.

Cintra is also a partner in Cintra Zachry, which is planning the multibillion-dollar Trans-Texas Corridor toll road from North Texas to San Antonio.

“There are very few issues more important to my constituents than transportation needs. It’s a real quality of life issue in my district,” Nelson said. “But when the legislation was approved for the Trans-Texas Corridor we didn’t realize we were giving up all we gave up. We should have asked more questions.”

Nelson says she’s trying to protect North Texans “from having the same kind of buyer’s remorse I have with the Trans-Texas Corridor. We all want the same thing. I’m just saying we probably ought to slow down and make sure we are entering into this with our eyes wide open.”

Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816

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