"There is a business case to be made. But there is a political element to this too..."
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER
The Dallas Morning News
North Texas Tollway Authority Chairman Victor Vandergriff says his agency will not seek permission to charge tolls on a segment of free highway in Irving, as a plan floated Thursday by NTTA Executive Director Allen Clemson had suggested.
"There is no support for that," Vandergriff said late Thursday night. "It is not on our legislative agenda and hasn't been brought to the board. It will not happen."
Just hours before, Clemson had told members of a subcommittee of the Regional Transportation Council about discussions with state transportation officials about a three-mile non-tolled stretch of State Highway 161 in Irving.
The segment was built years ago as a four-lane free highway but now connects to newer toll roads at both its northern and southern ends. Traffic exiting the six-lane President George Bush Turnpike often stalls as it enters the free portion of Highway 161, Clemson had explained.
After three miles of the free four-lane road, traffic moves onto the NTTA's new Highway 161 toll road.
Adding tolls to the middle, free segment would allow the NTTA to expand and rebuild that segment more quickly than the Texas Department of Transportation has promised to do so and would enable the NTTA to cover the $75 million in construction costs that the Transportation Department will otherwise have to spend.
But the mere discussion of such a plan, one that would require legislative approval, promised to be controversial.
When asked about it Thursday, Gov. Rick Perry said he is dead set against creating an exception for the NTTA to toll the existing free highway.
Having just returned from Austin late Thursday night, Vandergriff said he became aware of the proposal only through reports of that afternoon's RTC meeting. He called The Dallas Morning News to say Clemson had acted prematurely and the board would not support the idea.
"Allen was looking at this issue from the perspective of making a business case" for tolling the free segment, Vandergriff said. "And there is a business case to be made. But there is a political element to this too, and the board simply was not aware that this was being brought forward.
"This will not be pursued," he insisted.
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