Wednesday, November 12, 2008

With the gas tax frozen since the early 1990's: "The world of highway building will never be simple again."

The latest Texas tollway deal is a mind-stretcher

Nov 12, 2008

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

There’s been a dizzying pace of developments regarding the construction of the Texas 161 tollway in western Dallas County.

There’s nothing wrong with the way things have turned out, and it’s good that the road is being built. But the changes in the way it is being financed show that the world of highway building will never be simple again.

The tollway will be a north-south road that is expected to relieve congestion on Texas 360 in Arlington. It will help funnel traffic to the new Dallas Cowboys stadium.

Tax roads. First, we had tax-supported highways. We paid our gasoline taxes and other vehicle-related fees, and the state used that money to buy land and build free roads.

Private toll roads. By 2003, Texas population growth brought more congestion. The cost of land acquisition, highway construction and maintenance began to surpass revenue from taxes and fees. The Legislature passed a bill that allowed more roads to be built as tollways. Some could be built by private companies, including foreign companies.

Public toll roads. The North Texas Tollway Authority complained when a Spanish firm appeared to have won the bidding to build the Texas 121 tollway in Denton and Collin counties. In 2007, the Legislature passed another bill giving public entities like NTTA the right of first refusal on new toll projects.

Extensive delays. When it came time to start the Texas 161 tollway, state law gave NTTA time to negotiate with the Texas Department of Transportation over the projected value of the road and its 52-year toll income stream. While those talks were under way, the Regional Transportation Council diverted $272 million from other regional road work to begin construction on the tollway.

Economic difficulties. With the worldwide credit crisis, NTTA struggled to complete a deal with the state on Texas 161.

Back to using tax money. On Oct. 30, the state stepped up to help. The Texas Transportation Commission agreed to guarantee loans to pay NTTA’s bills if the tollway does not meet its revenue projections. For that guarantee, the state will use the gasoline taxes and vehicle fees formerly used to build roads.

The same agreement calls for NTTA to build the Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail tollway from downtown Fort Worth to northern Johnson County. NTTA has two years to back out of both Texas 161 and the Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail, but people there say that won’t happen.

Commission member Bill Meadows of Fort Worth says deals like this use leverage to stretch tax dollars.

True, but understanding them is also a stretch for taxpayers.

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