Thursday, October 14, 2010

"At some point, I think we need to test the idea with some legislators, and see if it’s going be an idea that will float."

Existing freeways could be tolled

October 14, 2010

Gordon Dickson
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2010

Tolls could someday be placed on portions of Texas 360 in south Arlington and Texas 161 in west Irving that are currently free.

The Regional Transportation Council by its own rules is not allowed to put tolls on existing free lanes. In many cases state and federal law prohibits the conversion of free lanes to toll lanes as well.

But members of the RTC, the Metroplex's federally-recognized official planning body, are weighing whether to go to Austin and ask for permission from state officials to convert a couple miles of freeway into toll roads on Texas 360 south of Interstate 20, and Texas 161 from Texas 183 to the President George Bush Turnpike.

"Would the public fully understand or would we lose the support we have now, in ... converting free lanes into toll lanes?" said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Morris wanted to bring the issue up for debate, but cautioned that it may not be wise to ask legislators for permission to increase the use of toll roads in the region at a time when the state is dealing with straining issues such as an $18 billion budget shortfall, immigration and redistricting. One train of thought is to wait until the 2013 legislative session, instead of pushing the idea during the 2011 session that is scheduled to begin in January.

"As a staff person, I am very nervous," Morris said. "Maybe we can hold off on this, and maybe put it into another legislative session. It could be like the Trans Texas Corridor, where once the opposition started you couldn't have a conversation about it."

But Dallas Councilman Ron Natinsky said the idea merits further discussion.

"At some point, I think we need to test the idea with some legislators, and see if it’s going be an idea that will float," Natinsky said. "I think we need to do our homework on that."

On Texas 161, the North Texas Tollway Authority could remove the state of a $74 million commitment to rebuild a two- to three-mile section of the four-lane freeway and expand it to six lanes in exchange for the right to convert the road into a part of the Bush Turnpike, tollway authority executive director Allen Clemson told an RTC committee Thursday. That road is already bumpy -- a stark contrast from the smooth pavement on the adjacent turnpike -- and needs to be rebuilt by 2019, officials said.

On Texas 360, the need is further down the road, maybe 10 years or longer. But the tollway authority also is probing the possibility of converting a two- or three-mile portion of the nontoll road near Southeast Green Oaks Boulevard into a toll road. While that news may be unsettling for residents of south Arlington and Mansfield, the tollway authority is already responsible for planning a southern extension of Texas 360 into the Mansfield area, so the question is really just how far north should the tollway authority's jurisdiction be allowed to reach.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

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