Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"You're not invited to the decision making process. Those making the decisions know they're not accountable to you."

Why are we still paying for the Dallas North Tollway?

April 15, 2008

Copyright 2008

DALLAS - Believe it or not, the Dallas North Tollway was supposed to be free by now. That obviously didn't happen, and it never will.

With a drastic funding shortfall for new roads in North Texas, local leaders rely on toll roads to keep paying for what the state cannot afford.

Take State Highway 121 across Collin County. The North Texas Tollway Authority recently won the right to build what will be a concrete cash cow.

"It's the lure of money," said David Stall, a transportation watchdog with Corridorwatch.org. "It's the lure of big money."

In less than ten years, SH 121 is expected to bring in $223 million a year in tolls. One can also add $202 million for the Dallas North Tollway and $179 million on the Bush Turnpike.

"It's important for the NTTA to be able to continue to provide transportation choices for drivers and alternative funding sources for the region," said Sherita Coffelt, a NTTA spokesperson, on why all that money is needed.

On SH 121, the NTTA has the authority to collect tolls for 52 years. In exchange, the NTTA wrote the region a check for $3.2 billion. The money will fund construction of non-tolled road projects the region needs but that the state of Texas cannot afford.

"There is very little pressure to turn that money back, or lower the tolls or turn that road into a free road," Stall said. "There's a tremendous pressure to find more things to spend the money and grow your organization and your empire."

Originally, the idea behind toll roads in North Texas wasn't to generate revenue, but instead to build roads, pay them off and then eventually make them free.

In fact, the Dallas-Forth Worth Turnpike is a good example of just that. In 1977 it was paid off, became a free road and was renamed to Interstate 30.

At the time, there were proposals to keep the tolls on and use them to pay for more roads.

Opponents lined up, including the city of Fort Worth, which complained about the "unlawful, illegal, immoral and fattening activities" of the toll authority. The opponents won and toll booths came off.

The Dallas North Tollway was built with the same promise, when it was "paid off" it would be "free" too. That never happened.

"Well, because the Dallas North Tollway was never paid off," Coffelt said of why the Dallas North Tollway never became free. "Before it was paid off, the decision was made to extend it."

To pay the bill, the NTTA used the revenue from the existing portion as collateral for the new loans. Since then, every time the NTTA builds a new road it uses existing toll revenue as collateral.

"Well, with the tremendous amount of money that comes in on a regular basis, you institutionalize it," Stall said. "You build an organization and a structure that is dependent on that revenue and constantly looking for new projects and new ways to spend that."

The NTTA has grown into an agency with more than 700 employees and a payroll of almost $27 million. And while the NTTA said it's an accountable and transparent organization, critics point out its board members are appointed, not elected by voters.

"You're not invited to the decision making process," Stall said. "Those making the decisions know they're not accountable to you."

The NTTA is currently negotiating to build another new toll road that would lead to the new Texas Stadium - State Highway 161.

Transportation sources said during those negotiations, the NTTA asked for permanent tolling authority and has also asked to rewrite its 52-year deal for SH 121. It now wants permanent tolls there, too.

"As you know, there's a huge need in North Texas for additional transportation choices and additional funding sources," Coffelt said when asked if toll roads will ever be free. "And as long as that need exists, the NTTA will too."

E-mail dschechter@wfaa.com

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