North Texas transportation planners shift away from toll projects

DALLAS (TIP): The Regional Transportation Council on Thursday, November 13, excluded a controversial rural toll road from its long-range plan and dropped efforts to involve the state Transportation Department in financing the divisive Trinity Parkway toll project. Those votes highlight a shift away from the planning entity’s years-long practice of using tolls to finance road construction as state lawmakers repeatedly failed to solve transportation funding shortfalls. The moves also come amid mounting public opposition to toll roads in North Texas, where virtually every major highway project under construction includes tolling.

The region will soon be home to the nation’s largest network of managed toll lanes, which are being added to existing highways to help add capacity and finance renovations or expansions. “It’s been by force of nature, really, from Austin,” said RTC vice chairman Mark Riley, who also is Parker County judge. “We’ve been given a task but no funds.” Texas voters last week agreed by a nearly 4- 1 ratio to give TxDOT about $1.7 billion a year in additional funding, with the caveat that the new money could not be used on toll projects.

That still leaves TxDOT with an estimated $3.3 billion shortfall that the agency says it needs to maintain existing roads and build more to keep up with expected population growth. RTC member Jungus Jordan called the election results a mandate. “If the Legislature didn’t get a message out of that, I don’t know what it will take,” he said. Lawmakers have already begun filing bills aimed at further shoring up TxDOT’s funding gap during the legislative session that begins in January. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said he expects transportation funding to be a top issue in the upcoming session.

Northeast Gateway

The North Central Texas Council of Government’s transportation department, which executes the RTC’s policies, originally recommended putting the divisive Northeast Gateway toll road into a long-range transportation plan. NCTCOG staffers rescinded that recommendation amid massive opposition to the project and criticism over how the agency managed public information about it. The road was planned to run from Garland to Greenville. Residents criticized NCTCOG for basing its support for the road on traffic estimates that far outpaced population growth projections. The project remains an “area of study” in the plan, but the chairman of the private company developing it said he’s not likely to move forward. Texas Turnpike Corp.

chairman John Crew said he’s already spent $5 million developing the project. He said he has other deals to try to move forward with. “Until you can get the leadership to say we really do need this, it’s not worth using my capital to fight the politics,” he said in an interview last month. The portion of the project that remains a subject to be studied does not include a potential leg that could have run from Garland into Dallas. That phase of the project was identified as a potential extension in an oversight agreement between Texas Turnpike and TxDOT. A Texas Turnpike spokeswoman said that extension was added to the agreement at the behest of NCTCOG officials. NCTCOG spokeswoman Amanda Wilson said the extension would have replaced State Highway 78 through Garland and would not have been tolled. “So, the [agreement] shows it as an extension of the toll road, but if this project would have moved forward, the concept would have been a nontolled arterial to facilitate moving traffic off the toll road in the direction of LBJ,” she said.

Too cozy?

Northeast opponents also accused NCTCOG officials of working too closely with the private company and sometimes on its behalf. Many of those complaints centered on emails between NCTCOG senior program manager Tom Shelton and Texas Turnpike executives. NCTCOG transportation director Michael Morris announced Thursday that Shelton is leaving the agency to take a job in the private sector. Morris defended the agency’s traffic estimates and dealings with Texas Turnpike during the Northeast Gateway development. He said Shelton’s departure was unrelated to the project. “Tom did exactly what I asked him to do,” Morris said.RTC members and NCTCOG staffers praised Shelton’s work for the agency and applauded his tenure.

Trinity Parkway

NCTCOG staffers had also recommended lobbying state lawmakers to give TxDOT the authority to find a private developer to help finance the Trinity Parkway tollway. They backed away from that proposal after Texas Transportation Commission member Victor Vandergriff said he didn’t want the agency involved in the controversial project. Dallas and North Texas Tollway Authority have an agreement to build that road, which would mostly run inside the Trinity River’s levees.

But more than $1 billion in funding needed for the $1.5 billion project has yet to be identified. Traffic estimates used to justify that road have also been criticized. But many Trinity opponents also say that the project will further subsidize suburban sprawl to the detriment of Dallas’ downtown core. And they say it is incompatible with planned lakes, parks and recreational areas the city plans to put along the road and the Trinity River. Nonprofit Trinity Commons Foundation is raising money for a design summit aimed at alleviating those concerns. The group wants to have urban planners make tweaks and additions to plans so the road has more landscaping and inviting features.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a toll road supporter, said Thursday that he will present ideas about better designing the road at a breakfast next week. “This project is critical to the future of our city, and how the design is finalized is one of the most important things we can do,” he said. “I believe this project should be studied and reviewed by recognized experts using the best urban design principles that exist as we move to our next phase.”

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