Thursday, January 28, 2010

CDA ban ignored: Privatized freeway tolls gain a foothold on I-35 in Denton

I-35E expansion to be completed in stages


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

Rebuilding Interstate 35E from Dallas to Denton will have to be done in stages, even if Texas contracts with a private toll firm to build and finance most of the work, state transportation officials said Wednesday.

The full project – which would stretch 28 miles and include four rebuilt free lanes and two tolled lanes in each direction – would cost $4.3 billion, Texas Department of Transportation officials said.

Trouble is, the only money Texas has now for the project – or will likely have in the near future – is $592 million set aside from the billions North Texas Tollway Authority paid for the State Highway 121 project, deputy executive director John Barton said.

To stretch that money, Barton said, the department is considering seeking private partners to help build a 12-mile segment of the road. The scaled-down project would also begin with just three free lanes in each direction plus the tolled lanes. Frontage roads would also be added or rebuilt.

The segment would stretch from the Bush Turnpike in Dallas to FM2181 in Denton County.

But even to do this much of the project will take a new approach by the department and a rule change by the Texas Transportation Commission. It will take the agency about 12 months to select a private firm to do the work, Barton said.

The rule change is necessary because the state would seek to use a so-called pass-through toll agreement with a private company to build the 12-mile segment. The company would agree to build and finance the road in return for an upfront payment – usually a portion of its construction costs – plus guaranteed payments from future toll revenues.

If toll revenues are higher than expected, Texas would see a windfall, but if they are lower, it would still have to cover the promised payments to the firm.

Denton County Judge Mary Horn said she strongly favors the approach, because she believes the state has no other way to pay for the badly needed widening of Interstate 35E.

"Yes, I hear people objecting to the idea because it is a toll road, but I do not see this as a toll road," she said. "The traveling public will have a choice. For the anti-toll road people, if they feel that strongly about it, well bless their little hearts, there will be free lanes right beside the tolled lanes and they certainly won't have to use the toll lanes."

A similar hybrid approach to tolls – with rebuilt free lanes being joined by brand-new tolled lanes – will be used on LBJ Freeway in Dallas, which should begin construction early next year.

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