Thursday, April 12, 2007

A 'special' deal for North Texas tollers?

Tarrant not in tollway ban

April 12, 2007

Gordon Dickson
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

Tarrant County officials said Wednesday that they're relieved that plans to build toll lanes on Interstate 35W, Loop 820 and Texas 114/121 can continue, even though lawmakers are poised to ban privately funded toll roads.

The ban would, however, be a major setback for the Trans-Texas Corridor, Gov. Rick Perry's ambitious proposal to build privately financed toll roads across the state.

By a 137-2 vote, the House passed the statewide two-year moratorium Wednesday, and the bill was sent to the Senate, where an overwhelming number of senators also favor a moratorium.

But supporters of the Tarrant County toll projects say it's important not to let down their guard. Lawmakers are still working on a broader transportation bill and may revisit the moratorium issue, which could put the Tarrant County projects at risk.

'We've got to continue attacking this on several fronts,' said Russell Laughlin, transportation committee chairman of the 35W Coalition.

The group of business and government leaders along I-35W opposes the moratorium, saying that private investment in toll roads would make up for a lack of gas tax funding. The coalition considers the current exemption of Tarrant County projects the silver lining to an otherwise bad bill.

The Regional Transportation Council spent more than a year creating ground rules for companies to follow in bidding for toll projects, including limits on toll pricing in Dallas-Fort Worth. A moratorium could unravel that work.

'It's great news that our legislators are acknowledging the hard work our region has done,' said Laughlin, a vice president for Hillwood.

Special deal for North Texas

The moratorium is the latest effort to pull back tolling powers given to the Texas Department of Transportation in previous legislative sessions. The issue has come to a head this year because the Transportation Department has aggressively courted private companies to build toll roads and collect the tolls for up to 50 years, creating a groundswell of opposition across the state.

Lawmakers who gave the Transportation Department the power to build toll roads are now reversing themselves in response to angry Texans.

The moratorium would apply only to privately funded toll roads.

The bill is worded so some projects in the Metroplex's four biggest counties -- Tarrant, Denton, Dallas and Collin -- would be exempt. That includes two projects in which private bidders are already being sought: I-35W/Loop 820/Texas 183 North Tarrant Express, and Texas 114/121 DFW Connector in Grapevine.

The planned Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth would not be affected because it is a project of the North Texas Tollway Authority, a state agency.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, author of the moratorium amendment, joked that she felt like a North Texas representative because so many people from Tarrant and Denton counties had talked to her about the issue.

She said her amendment is not a death knell for private toll roads but a 'tap on the brakes.'

Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, said: 'In North Texas, it's a different deal. ... We can't let you just put the brakes on all these projects.'

If Tarrant County projects were not exempt, Truitt said, 'Are we not changing the rules midstream after the local bodies did exactly what we told them to?'

Plans to build toll lanes on LBJ Freeway in the Dallas area would also be exempt from the moratorium.

Political hot potato

However, the hotly contested Texas 121 toll road in Collin and Denton counties would not be exempt. That project is being courted by the North Texas Tollway Authority, which runs the Dallas North Tollway and the President George Bush Turnpike.

Many area lawmakers would prefer that the tollway authority build Texas 121. They weren't happy earlier this year when the state Transportation Department instead accepted a proposal from Spanish firm Cintra to build Texas 121 and provide about $3 billion in payments to the state for other regional projects.

Now, with lawmakers' help, the authority is getting another shot at Texas 121.

On Wednesday, the authority's board directed its staff to prepare a proposal to build and operate Texas 121.

If such an offer is submitted to the Regional Transportation Council by May 25, it will be weighed against Cintra's offer.

Staff writer Aman Batheja contributed to this report.

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