Spanish Company Cintra's NTE Mobility Partners to convert even more Dallas freeway lanes to privatized tollways
By GORDON DICKSON
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
A toll road developer has offered to tear down and rebuild 10 miles of Interstate 35W from downtown to far north Fort Worth to relieve one of Tarrant County's biggest bottlenecks with a combination of toll and nontoll lanes.
The proposal by NTE Mobility Partners, submitted this week to the Texas Department of Transportation, would allow [essentially force] motorists to pay their way out of congestion on toll lanes that would extend from Interstate 30 near downtown to North Tarrant Parkway, south of Alliance Airport.
For motorists who can't or don't want to pay tolls, the project would include reconstruction of existing nontoll lanes, continuous frontage roads, improvements to access ramps and an end to those pesky left-lane exits at the I-35W/Loop 820 interchange. Federal and state law generally requires existing nontoll interstate lanes to remain free, although toll lanes can be added. Months of negotiations are likely needed before it becomes clear whether state officials will approve the project. But the developer has said that, if its offer is accepted, the $2.7 billion project could be open to traffic by June 30, 2017.
"With the new proposed configuration, the project will result in over 1.5 million hours saved annually by moving drivers from congested roads to free-flowing lanes," according to an executive summary of the report released Thursday afternoon.
But while the I-35W plan may be the best and perhaps only chance of fixing the interstate for at least the next 10 years -- state officials and lawmakers say they'll run out of gasoline-tax-supported funds to build any roads by 2012 -- the proposal promises to be controversial on many levels:
- Tarrant County residents may be growing intolerant of toll roads as a solution to seemingly every mobility problem in the western Metroplex. Toll projects are already under way on Texas 114/121 in Grapevine, Airport Freeway and Loop 820 in Northeast Tarrant County, and Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth.
- The I-35W developer is overseeing the Airport Freeway/Loop 820 project, known as North Tarrant Express.
- The I-35W project does not have environmental clearance and, although the federal government is expected to sign off on it by early next year, there's always a chance it could be delayed by an unforeseen environmental problem. In any case, dirt won't turn on I-35W until that paperwork is filed.
The executive summary calls for the Transportation Department to inject $287.5 million in public funds, although later it explains that a scaled-back version of the plan could be done for $173.8 million in public funds.
Officials with NTE Mobility Partners declined Thursday to elaborate on those costs, which are expected to be detailed during a Texas Transportation Commission workshop Wednesday in Austin.
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