Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"My public questions whether all that gas tax money goes to projects they can use."

Developer offers scaled-back I-35W plan for north Fort Worth


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2010

AUSTIN -- A developer who wants to rebuild 10 miles of Interstate 35W in north Fort Worth has offered a scaled-back, less expensive version of a plan submitted to the state last week, but it would provide fewer benefits to motorists who didn't want to pay tolls.

The result could mean some, but not all, left-lane exits would be eliminated at the I-35W/Loop 820 interchange. And, a proposal to add continuous frontage roads would be pushed back until a later phase, officials said.

Even so, state officials gave an informal thumbs-up Wednesday to the plan, saying they like the concept because it requires a contribution of $173.8 million in public money, about 40 percent less than an earlier version that required $287.5 million in state funds.

State officials are trying to cut costs during tough budget times, while relieving gridlock on the state's most congested roadways.

"Clearly, we have to take care of the economic engines that run the state," Texas Transportation Commissioner Ned Holmes of Houston said during a workshop Wednesday, where the I-35W corridor in Tarrant County was described as a key corridor for job growth and shipping.

Earlier traffic relief

The developer, North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, is offering to tear down and rebuild I-35W from Interstate 30 near downtown Fort Worth to North Tarrant Parkway near Alliance Airport. Existing nontoll lanes would be rebuilt -- three lanes in each direction from I-30 to 28th Street and two lanes in each direction from 28th Street to North Tarrant Parkway -- and two toll lanes would be added in each direction.

All told, it would be $2.7 billion worth of work, including up to $1.3 billion in developer construction costs plus all necessary maintenance and operations over 52 years, said Bob Brown, a state official. During that period, the developer would be allowed to collect revenue on the toll lanes and keep any profits they could squeeze from the road.

NTE Mobility Partners, which is headed by the U.S. arm of Spanish firm Cintra, has said that if negotiations with the Texas Department of Transportation during the next several months are successful, they can have the improvements completed by June 30, 2017, which means that motorists would see traffic relief at least 10 years earlier than if the road was built as a traditional freeway.

Project details

But the reduced-cost version of the plan detailed Wednesday would deliver on only some of the nontoll goodies that were highlighted last week in an executive summary, when the developer submitted its proposal to the Department of Transportation.

For example:

  • The plan would not remove all of the left-lane exits on this portion of I-35W. Left-lane exits not only slow left-lane traffic, but they force exiting motorists to merge with fast-moving traffic, often in drivers' blind spots.
Drivers on the toll lanes would no longer have to worry about making left-lane exits from westbound Loop 820 to either northbound or southbound I-35W, or from either direction of I-35W to eastbound Loop 820. Currently, motorist must make a left hand turn if they are going south on I-35W.

Also, on the nontoll lanes, drivers would no longer need to make a left-lane exit from westbound Loop 820 to southbound I-35W, or from eastbound Loop 820 to northbound I-35W.

However, for those who didn't want to pay tolls, left-lane exits from northbound I-35W to westbound Loop 820, and from southbound I-35W to eastbound Loop 820, would remain.

Frontage roads would not be continuous, as earlier suggested.

Frontage roads would be rebuilt, with better access on and off the highway. However, the frontage roads would not be continuous until a later phase, and would instead dead-end or U-turn at two points: the Trinity River and the Fort Worth & Western rail yard.

The state Transportation Department is treading carefully as it weighs whether to accept the developer's proposal.

Lawmakers are becoming concerned that so many of the Metroplex's upcoming road projects include a toll component.

"I have always felt like the public in Denton and Tarrant County would put up with limited toll roads, but I wonder if we're reaching that limit," state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, told Transportation Department officials earlier Wednesday. "My public questions whether all that gas tax money goes to projects they can use."

GORDON DICKSON, 817-390-7796

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