Thursday, August 28, 2008

North Texas Tollway Authority claims "ownership" of State highway 121

State Highway 121 to open Sunday

August 28, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

A new era begins for State Highway 121 on Sunday as a nine-mile section of the toll road opens to motorists and the road is turned over to new ownership.

The North Texas Tollway Authority becomes the new owner of the state road, tentatively renamed 121 Tollway. A permanent name will be selected later this year.

The changeover occurs as the toll road opens between Old Denton Road in Denton County and just east of Hillcrest Road in Collin County.

The new segment, along with the existing seven-mile segment, creates a 16-mile corridor stretching from Coppell to Plano.

“That trip now takes 35 to 40 minutes on the existing lanes and service roads with traffic lights,” NTTA spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt said. “With the new lanes open, that time should be cut in half.”

But the quicker commute comes with a price, which some critics say is too steep.

New rates will go into effect for the opening segment, and increases will occur beginning Monday for the existing segment between Old Denton Road and Denton Tap Road. The adjusted rates will increase from one to four cents for cars and passenger trucks with toll tags and from two to 12 cents for those without tags.

Rates vary depending on which exit ramps are used.

The one-way 16-mile trip will cost $2.11 for toll tag users and $3.06 for those who don’t use them, officials said.

“I will use it sometimes,” said Kyle Steinhauser, who commutes from his home in Frisco to his job near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. “I am excited about the enhanced mobility, but that is hampered by the high tolls coupled with high gas prices.

“Unfortunately, that is a disincentive to use it,” he said.

The toll rates were set by the NTTA board of directors as part of the project agreement between the state and the tollway authority, officials said.

That agreement was reached last year, after years of debate and acrimony. The tollway authority was chosen over a competing private firm to build the rest of the road and operate it for the next 50 years in exchange for a payment of $3.2 billion to the state.

NTTA made the payment last fall. The money will be used to pay for other transportation projects in North Central Texas.

“We look forward to turning over the road and providing better mobility for the region,” said Kelli Petras, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation. “State Highway 121 has been sort of the poster-child for public-private partnerships.”

The transportation department has been expanding State Highway 121 since 2003. The first segment opened in 2006.

The second segment, built at a cost of $210 million, has been under construction since 2004.

The original plans were to build the road as a free highway. But state officials then decided to convert it to a toll road so that money earmarked for the project could be used for other transportation projects.

Local officials were originally upset with the plan but have come to accept that toll roads are a part of the future.

“It’s an imminent thing,” said John Dillard, mayor of The Colony, which is bordered on the south by the new segment opening Sunday. “This will make it much easier to get around here, and I’m excited and looking forward to it opening.”

Construction of the third segment from near Hillcrest Road to Hardin Boulevard on the Allen/McKinney line is already under way. That segment will cost $125 million and is expected to open in 2010.

Segment four, involving an interchange at U.S. Highway 75, is expected to begin this fall and open to traffic in 2011. Design of the final segment — an interchange with the Dallas North Tollway — is still in design and planning but is expected to open in 2012.

NTTA officials will convene a committee of representatives from Dallas, Denton and Collin counties — all touched by the 121 Tollway — to help choose a permanent name, Ms. Coffelt said.

The western end of the toll road will connect with State Highway 121, which will remain a free highway through Tarrant County. A portion of the highway on the Denton/Tarrant county line is currently being improved and expanded by the state.

The 121 Tollway has an all-electronic collection system. Drivers with an NTTA TollTag, a TxDOT TxTag or a Harris County Toll Road Authority EZ Tag will have tolls deducted from their accounts.

Those without tags will be considered ZipCash customers and will have their license plates photographed. Bills will arrive by mail.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning

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