Friday, January 30, 2009

Spanish company Cintra's NTE Mobility Partners picked to build North Tarrant toll road

Private toll lanes, free highways merge first in Tarrant project


The Dallas Morning News
opyright 2009

AUSTIN – Private toll roads are coming to North Texas, and coming fast.

In the first of three deals to be announced over the next two months, the Texas Transportation Commission voted 5-0 Thursday to hire a Spanish toll-road company to rebuild Tarrant County's busiest traffic corridor, adding two new toll lanes in each direction.

The 13-mile project will replace the two free lanes in each direction on Interstate 820 and on State Highway 183 in northeast Tarrant County. Four new toll lanes will run parallel, and drivers used to tolls of about 14 cents a mile will initially pay rates as high as 75 cents a mile.

Construction should begin late next year and be complete by 2015, said a beaming roster of officials from Tarrant County and the Texas Department of Transportation. Final details of the contract will be negotiated over the next 60 days, and lining up lenders for the project could take until the end of this year.

"This is a historic day for mobility in North Texas, and a historic day for the citizens," said TxDOT Commissioner Bill Meadows, a former Fort Worth City Council member. Nearly a dozen mayors, council members and others from the county traveled to Austin to hear the announcement Thursday morning.

For Dallas drivers, Thursday's announcement is a sign of things to come.

Next month, the TxDOT leaders are expected to pick a firm to rebuild the LBJ Freeway. Like the North Tarrant Express, the LBJ project will add no new free lanes, but will add tolled lanes. The six new toll lanes will be half-buried underneath the existing LBJ lanes in what some have called the most ambitious road-engineering project in America, now that Boston's Big Dig is complete.

The LBJ project is expected to begin construction next year and take five years – a significant challenge for the 280,000 drivers who currently use the lanes each day and the hundreds of businesses located along its frontage roads.

TxDOT officials said Wednesday that mitigation efforts with local business along LBJ have been under way for more than a year, though most lanes of traffic will remain open during peak hours throughout the construction period. Phil Russell, assistant executive director at TxDOT, said any contract awarded will include steep fines should the construction crews be forced to close main lanes.

Another project under bid by private toll companies is the DFW Connector in Grapevine, which will involve rebuilding and expanding State Highway 114 and State Highway 121, including interchanges across seven different highways. The 14-mile project will add free lanes and tolled lanes owned by the state along Highway 114.

North Texas drivers are increasingly familiar with toll roads, but they've never driven on lanes like these.

The new concepts that will be at the center of all three of these projects are what are called "managed lanes." Toll rates for these lanes will change 24 hours a day, depending on how much demand for them there is. That demand will be measured by the amount of traffic on the free lanes.

For drivers, that means the more backed-up the traffic on free lanes, the more it will cost to get a quick ride into town on the tolled lanes. Buses will use the tolled lanes free, and motorcyclists and carpoolers will get a discount.

The idea is that by raising the tolls on the toll lanes when traffic is bad, it will keep the traffic down to a manageable level, which in this case is defined as traffic moving at 50 miles per hour or more.

It's a rarely used concept, though drivers in Orange County pay a $1 a mile during rush hour into Los Angeles, and appear happy to do so.

For now, Cintra estimates that the peak-hour rates on the North Tarrant Express will be about $6.50 each way for the 13-mile trip, or about 50 cents per mile. It says tolls during nonpeak periods could be as low as nine cents a mile. By comparison, rates on NTTA roads, which do not change according to traffic levels, are about 14 cents a mile.

The Regional Transportation Council has adopted a policy that sets the maximum rate for the managed-lane tolls at 75 cents per hour for now, but even that cap is a soft cap. If the toll lanes prove so popular that they are getting overcrowded even at 75 cents a mile, the rates can be increased.

Jose Lopez, Cintra's president of American operations, said the managed-lane idea is a new one for his company, and he applauded North Texas leaders for adopting what he called a "modern concept."

It's catching on, however. Toll roads in Virginia headed into Washington, D.C., will use managed-lane toll policies, and so will Houston's rebuilt Katy Freeway, which opened late last year and is expected to begin using fluctuating rates within a few months.

The smiles all around the briefing room in Austin Thursday were in marked contrast with the consternation associated with Cintra's first attempt to build a toll road in North Texas.

Two years ago, the commission awarded the company the rights to Highway 121, only to see an enraged Legislature step in and pave the way for NTTA to successfully bid on the project. This time, however, NTTA has its hands full and did not seek to compete for the road. It will, however, be paid a fee to collect the tolls for Cintra.

"We're very pleased to see the level of support from local officials," Lopez said Thursday.

The team Cintra pulled together to bid on the project includes nearly a dozen firms, including two others who have agreed to put money in as equity investors. One of those is the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund, though neither Lopez nor fund officials would say how much money they are investing.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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