Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Our business partners understand today that patience is key."

I-35W to be widened by 2017 -- with toll lanes


Gordon Dickson
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2010

The Texas Transportation Commission has just approved a deal that speeds up the widening of I-35W from downtown Fort Worth to near Alliance Airport. The new lanes are scheduled to open by 2017. The project, which will become part of the adjacent Loop 820 expansion known as North Tarrant Express, will be paid for partly with a $135 million infusion of state funds known as Proposition 14, which pledges future gas tax revenue to pay off debt. That portion of the funding was approved Thursday during a commission meeting in Austin.Ntemapnew

Improvements include a complete redo of the dangerous I-35W/Loop 820 interchange -- and removal of all those bothersome left-lane exits -- and two new I-35W toll lanes in each direction from I-30 in downtown Fort Worth to just north of the I-35W/U.S. 287 split in far north Fort Worth. Existing freeway lanes also would be rebuilt and would remain free.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, says the approval of $135 million in Proposition 14 bonds for the I-35W project is highway justice for North Texas, which got shortchanged by the state earlier this year when voter-approved Proposition 12 bonds were issued for areas along the I-35 corridor in Texas that have far fewer traffic problems.

"I'm pleased to see Proposition 14 bond money being used to solve real congestion problems in the state, and especially in North Texas, which has seen tremendous growth and has been designated a serious non-attainment area for air quality," said Davis, a Senate transportation committee member.

A year ago, the Texas Department of Transportation abandoned its attempt to develop a new toll road parallel to the I-35 corridor known as the Trans Texas Corridor. That project was widely criticized as a land grab, and intrusion on Texans' property. Since then, about $1.9 billion in various forms of federal, state and local funding has been committed to widening the I-35 corridor and keeping it a nontoll road, mostly between Hillsboro and San Antonio. But very little of that money was awarded to the Metroplex, which is the state's most congested metro area.

Thursday's action brings the total amount of road work underway in the I-35W/Loop 820/Airport Freeway corridor in Tarrant County to $3.3 billion, including expansion of Northeast Loop 820 in Fort Worth and Haltom City and Texas 121/183 in Bedford, Euless and Hurst.

Most of the money is coming from NTE Mobility Partners, a group of private-sector firms led by Spain-based Cintra that is arranging much of the financing in return for the right to collect tolls on the toll lanes for 52 years. Existing freeway lanes would remain free.

The project does include a total of about $773 million in public funds.

NTE Mobility Partners has pledged to rebuild Loop 820 and Airport Freeway by 2015, and I-35W by 2017.

Construction on the Loop 820/Airport Freeway portion is beginning in the next few weeks. Motorists can expand full-fledged construction on Airport Freeway, particularly in Hurst, by early next year.

The I-35W portion must still clear a couple of bureaucratic hurdles, including a federal environmental review. But Thursday's approval of the $135 million in state Proposition 14 funds removes the biggest obstacle to getting the work done.

"Our business partners understand today that patience is key," said Russell Laughlin, senior vice president of Hillwood Properties at AllianceTexas. About 200 businesses have pushed elected leaders to fix congestion on I-35W for the past decade, said Laughlin, who also is president of the 35W Coalition.

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