Saturday, April 14, 2007

"I know some profit would go to Spain. But that's the price we're paying for the state's failure to fund needed infrastructure."

At intersection of Slow Street and Costly Road

April 14, 2007

Bud Kennedy
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

Of all the Texas-size whoppers I've heard lately, the biggest might have come from Texas Motor Speedway.

Looking into the TV camera with deepest sincerity, Eddie Gossage said traffic at the speedway isn't so bad after all. It's a 'model of efficiency,' he said.

Maybe so.

Inside the parking lot.

But once you're out on the highway, you're a victim of Texas' cheapskate highway planning along the 30-mile-long parking lot also known as Interstate 35W.

The traffic snarl isn't the speedway's fault. Traffic is at a standstill on I-35W every day.

Highway planners want to add two lanes by 2015.

The bad news:

A simple trip from downtown to the speedway in the new toll lanes -- never even leaving Fort Worth -- will cost about $3.

If you want to drive to D/FW Airport or Dallas in the fast lane, that'll cost about $4.

Two toll lanes northward along Interstate 35W and two lanes eastward along Texas 183 are planned as part of the North Tarrant Express, a $2 billion project that involves hiring private companies to widen our highways, then letting them charge us for the pleasure of driving in the new lanes.

Right now, the profit would go back to the private companies, some of them backed by foreign investors. We might not be able to add any free lanes for up to 50 years. Only more toll lanes.

The toll would go up every two years based on inflation.

If inflation in the next 50 years matches that in the last 50, then by 2060 a fast drive to the speedway will cost $18.

Driving the toll lanes to the airport or Dallas will cost $22.

Some lawmakers in Austin aren't sure that's such a good deal. The Texas House voted this week to stop other toll road deals such as the statewide Trans-Texas Corridor for two years but gave the North Tarrant Express a green light, although the project might eventually shift away from private companies.

Depending on what Austin lawmakers and local city and county officials decide, the toll lanes might wind up governed by some other agency, perhaps the familiar local North Texas Tollway Authority.

If you don't want to sign away toll money for the next 50 years or if you want more control over the charges, then now is the time to tell your City Council members, county commissioners and state lawmakers.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, a Lewisville Republican who represents much of north Tarrant County, has said she wants to wait two years and take another look at all toll deals, even if that means delaying new local roads.

County Judge Glen Whitley, a Hurst Republican, is gung-ho to get the new lanes added right now.

Even though the commercial, for-profit toll lanes might or might not be the best deal over time, they're the fastest way to get Interstate 35W and Texas 183 traffic moving, he said.

'I know some profit would go to Spain,' he said, referring to Madrid-based Cintra, a company that owns and operates private toll roads in six countries and might be among the bidders for the North Tarrant project. 'But that's the price we're paying for the state's failure to fund needed infrastructure.'

In other words, if the Legislature won't raise gas taxes and send the money our way instead of out to rural West Texas, then we'll just have to get corporate dollars to build highways faster.

'Nobody likes talking about toll roads,' Whitley said. 'But we're not getting the help we need.'

A statewide slowdown on toll roads might have left Interstate 35W drivers stuck in traffic for an extra four to six years, he said. With the North Tarrant project spared a two-year wait, 'we see some light on the horizon,' he said.

I couldn't find Nelson on Friday to make her case for delaying or changing the North Tarrant toll lanes.

But I did find state Rep. Marc Veasey, a Fort Worth Democrat who also argued for taking another look at the project.

'I think we need to slow down,' he said. 'I think the public has a lot of uncertainty about what's going on.'

He said he's happy with the North Tarrant Express going ahead. That is, as long as the North Texas Tollway Authority has a fair shot at the contract instead of private owners.

'What concerns me is that it seems like everything is just being handed over' to private companies, he said.

'I'm not against private toll roads. But I'm not comfortable with the way this has been conducted. ... The public is concerned about 50-year contracts and about not having any say in the tolls.'

If you don't mind paying a $3 toll to drive the new lanes on Interstate 35W -- or if you'd rather wait and lobby Austin for more free lanes -- now is the time to let city, county and state officials and lawmakers know.

You could call while you're stuck in traffic.

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