Friday, October 15, 2010

Hall: "The idea of overturning the law the people fought so hard to put in place is an affront to taxpayers."

NTTA plans to toll stretch of State Highway 161 in Irving


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2010

Under a plan floated this week by the North Texas Tollway Authority, a three-mile stretch of free highway in Irving could soon be tolled, if lawmakers agree to make an exception to state law that bars tolls on existing free highways.

The short segment of State Highway 161 in question was built with tax dollars years ago, but it now connects to President George Bush Turnpike to the north and to the Highway 161 toll lanes to its south. Traffic backs up as it leaves the Bush Turnpike, and the state has promised to widen and reconstruct the segment.

To speed up those improvements, NTTA is offering to pay for the reconstruction itself, if the Legislature will change the law to allow it to toll the segment.

The proposal will be met with opposition from at least one fixture in the Capitol, however.

"They can't do that," Gov. Rick Perry said in an interview Thursday. Perry said he'll speak against any change to state law to allow NTTA to do so. "They better find a way to get around me."

NTTA executive director Alan Clemson said there is at least one other small stretch of road in North Texas that could be a candidate for a similar conversion, though it isn't posing the problems NTTA is encountering with the 161 segment. Still, any legislative change NTTA seeks would probably give it flexibility to address similar roads in the future, he said.

State law currently sets firm guidelines for how existing roads can be converted to tolled lanes, and the process is a lengthy one involving approval by county officials, voter approval and more.

Doing so would also require the Regional Transportation Council to amend its long-standing rules, said Michael Morris, staff director for the council.

"I don't think this is a good idea," Morris said.

He said that regardless of whether the changes make sense, the public reaction, and that of the Legislature, would probably be negative.

"We could be looking at Trans Texas Corridor-like reaction here," he said.

But others say the idea makes sense, given that the three-mile stretch is sandwiched between two toll roads. Dallas City Council member Ron Natinsky, chairman of the RTC, said the idea was worth pursuing with lawmakers for two reasons.

"First, it costs us nothing to take it up with the legislators. We might as well ask," said Natinsky, who represents Far North Dallas.

Besides, he said, the Highway 161 segment could be a good candidate for an exception to the state law. It was built ahead of the toll roads to ease congestion near Irving, but area planners always anticipated that the roads to its north and south would be tolled.

"I don't think we want to be in a position where we are being punished for doing a good deed," Natinsky said. "We don't want to build a road to address the needs that are out there, and then find our hands cuffed."

Even so, Morris said he's concerned that if public outcry to the idea is sufficient, it could prompt a renewed backlash against toll roads in general. That, in turn, could derail the region's efforts to persuade lawmakers to restore legal authority to the state to enter into long-term contracts with private firms who agree to build, finance and maintain toll roads.

That's a well-founded fear, judging by the reaction from one of the state's most vocal toll road opponents, Terri Hall of the San Antonio-based advocacy group Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

"There's a reason why converting existing freeways into toll roads started a massive taxpayer revolt across Texas: It's a double tax, like asking taxpayers to buy back what's already theirs," Hall said. "That's why existing law prohibits such action. Even uttering the idea of overturning the law the people fought so hard to put in place is an affront to taxpayers."

Clemson said discussions are ongoing and noted that his agency is simply making a proposal that would relieve TxDOT and the region of at least $75 million in expense.

Spokesman Chris Lippincott of the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin declined to say whether the agency would agree to swap responsibility for the segment if legal obstacles were cleared.

"We don't have any comment on this proposal," Lippincott said. "We do not negotiate with our transportation partners through the newspaper."

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