Friday, February 20, 2009

Appointees on Texas Transportation Commission and unaccountable NCTCOG plan to spend 'stimulus' on toll roads and public-private partnerships

Capital Injection - 2009 Economic Stimulus Package

$2.25B up for grabs as state eyes local transportation partnership

Michael Morris of the North Central Texas Council of Governments believes a proposed partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation would help generate funding for three large highway projects in the Metroplex.


Jeff Bounds Staff writer
Dallas Business Journal
Copyright 2009

Local and state officials are discussing a partnership that would decide how to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars North Texas hopes to get from the federal stimulus package, and three specific roadway projects already have been identified as top priorities.

The Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, will decide on Feb. 26 whether to join forces with the North Central Texas Council of Governments. The Texas Transportation Commission also is scheduled to decide at that meeting how the state will allocate its portion of federal economic-recovery money.

Should that partnership not come to pass, TxDOT and NCTCOG essentially would go their own ways in spending the federal stimulus funds being allocated to them. In that scenario, North Central Texas Council of Governments’ officials say, TxDOT basically would pick the statewide projects it’s most interested in, and NCTCOG would then apply the money it has to its choice of smaller works the state has opted not to do.

The state is scheduled to receive about $2.25 billion for highway projects from the stimulus package, with roughly $700 million of that money allocated to different “metropolitan planning organizations.” These entities are transportation policy making organizations such as NCTCOG that include representatives of local governments. (The 16 counties covered by the North Central Texas Council of Governments will get a total of $130 million of those regional funds, including Dallas, Collin, Tarrant and Denton.)

If the Texas Transportation Commission decides to go forward with the NCTCOG partnership, the Regional Transportation Council, which oversees the transportation aspects of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, would have to give final approval when it meets on March 5.

Michael Morris, NCTCOG’s director of transportation, says “we’re right in the middle” of talks between the two agencies, and the North Central Texas Council of Governments’ preference is to work together.

Whether or not the partnership ultimately happens, North Texas is likely to get more than $130 million of the state’s total stimulus funds, though a partnership would, from a purely political standpoint, make extra funding easier to come by.

“The theme to the story is we’re not just going to select $130 million of projects and go our own way,” Morris says. “We’re having partnership conversations with the state” to find the best projects to do.

Chris Lippincott, a TxDOT spokesman, says discussions with the North Central Texas Council of Governments are “ongoing.”

“There’s no single infusion of funds that will solve our state’s transportation problems,” he says. “But we want to make sure we get the best use of the stimulus funds that we can.”

Eyes on the Prize

Here are the three biggest projects that a TxDOT-NCTCOG partnership might help bring to fruition. NCTCOG officials stress that the amounts they are seeking are subject to change.
  • The money will provide funding for the so-called “New LBJ” Freeway, which calls for having eight no-cost lanes on the Dallas freeway (four in each direction) along with six new “managed” toll lanes (three in each direction) whose costs will vary depending on congestion. North Central Texas Council of Governments officials are seeking about $100 million for the public-private project, whose total price tag is estimated at $1.5 billion.
  • The partnership also would provide a proposed $271 million for an interchange at Southwest Parkway and Interstate 20 in Fort Worth. The project cost for that piece of work isn’t available yet, but the interchange is part of a multibillion-dollar toll road between Fort Worth and Cleburne that will kick off construction this year.
  • The so-called “D-FW Connector” would get unspecified funding under the North Central Texas Council of Governments’ proposal. That project will reconstruct and expand State Highways 114 and 121 north of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Tarrant and Dallas Counties. At this point, NCTCOG officials don’t have a target on how much they’re seeking on the D-FW Connector, because they are trying to move money from one project to another to get the best funding for a given piece of work. | 214-706-7122

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