Monday, July 23, 2007

NTTA on road to more tolls - North Texas Tollway Authority set to expand vision, role with new projects

By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER - The Dallas Morning News - Sunday, July 22, 2007
The North Texas Tollway Authority's second decade promises to be nothing like its first.

Today, at age 10, NTTA is promising to expand its focus beyond Dallas and Collin counties to mesh with state and local plans that will radically increase the number of toll roads in North Texas.

As a result, the authority is poised to exert more influence than ever before over the way North Texas drivers get from one place to another.

"I call it the maturing of the NTTA," said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. "Ten years ago, the NTTA's attitude may have been, 'We'll do a few projects, but we're not interested in managed lanes, or electronic toll roads. We basically build these big fat cash lanes.' " But that's changing fast, Mr. Morris said.

In addition to building the 26-mile State Highway 121 toll road, NTTA has been asked to build or operate at least five other toll roads, and will partner in several other "priced" projects such as pay-to-use HOV lanes.

Critics: Change needed
Critics caution, however, that as NTTA plays a bigger role in solving transportation problems, it will need to do a better job of paying attention to the whole region.

"I have nothing against them, except for their history," said Denton City Council member Pete Kamp, who said NTTA has long ignored Denton and Tarrant counties. "They are telling us that they are now going to be, and I trust them to be, good to their word. But in the past they've simply been in Dallas and Collin counties."

Bill Hale, the engineer in charge of the Dallas district of the Texas Department of Transportation, said North Texas' transportation solutions have long depended on pooling resources from the state, the region's elected officials and the toll authority. "It's a three-legged stool, and everyone has a role to play," he said.

If that's true, NTTA's leg is about to get a lot stronger, as Mr. Hale conceded in an interview last week.

And that means it will be under more scrutiny, said Mike Nowels, a former Regional Transportation Council member from Lewisville. Answerable only to an independent board of directors, the authority has had too little oversight, he said.

"Does the Dallas North Tollway from [Interstate] 635 south into Dallas, is it really up to standards? Is it anywhere close?" Mr. Nowels asked. "Why hasn't the tollway authority invested in fixing it? It's gridlock every morning and gridlock every evening – and it's been that way for 20 years."

NTTA officials and Mr. Morris said negotiations over Highway 121 are well ahead of schedule. An agreement is expected to be ready before the Texas Transportation Commission meets in Sugar Land on Thursday – a month before the deadline.

If the deadline is not met, the contract will go to Cintra, the Spanish firm that won preliminary approval in February to build the road.

Many of the Regional Transportation Council members who voted to let Cintra keep the contract said they now think NTTA will do a good job.

Mesquite City Council member John Heiman Jr. said many of the "no" votes were cast in opposition to the way NTTA was allowed to make a late bid after Cintra had been named the preliminary winner.

"I didn't vote against the NTTA; I was simply opposed to the process. It was awful," Mr. Heiman said.

Most RTC members have put the differences over Highway 121 behind them and are focused on building the region's badly needed roads, he said.

"There is so much need – and I am not talking about wants, I am talking basic needs of transportation – we're going to need a big head of steam to get it all done," Mr. Heiman said.

Mr. Morris said NTTA must be given the support it needs to live up to its commitments on Highway 121 and other roads it has promised to help build.

"We want them to succeed," Mr. Morris said. "We're going to do everything we can to assist them."

NTTA chairman Paul Wageman said board members have benefited from criticism.

"I think it has been very instructive, and we're changing," Mr. Wageman said. "We're having to grow and adapt to a changing environment. Perhaps we were a little slow to adapt to that as a board, but the board is now fully focused on our road ahead."

That path ahead, he said, includes an increased focus on communities in Tarrant and Denton counties who have long felt ignored by NTTA.

Higher tolls ahead

Still, what has changed most of all is not NTTA, but the way local officials and transportation planners have so enthusiastically embraced tolling as a road-building strategy.

That would have been hard to imagine in June 1997, when the Legislature voted to create NTTA.

Former Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson helped lead the charge to persuade lawmakers to dissolve the Texas Turnpike Authority and replace it with NTTA.

At the time, the authority's only job was to maintain the Dallas North Tollway and collect millions of dollars in tolls. In time, it used those funds and others to build the President George Bush Turnpike, and has since embarked on a handful of other, smaller projects.

But Mr. Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas system since 2002, said the philosophy about the role of toll roads in the highway system a decade ago barely resembles what has emerged since the Highway 121 debate began.

"When the NTTA was formed, the idea was that every toll road would be built and operated to the lowest possible cost to the drivers," Mr. Jackson said. "The idea was to set the smallest possible toll rates."

These days, the idea is to set the toll rates high enough to create a rich revenue stream that can be used as collateral for massive upfront loans from banks or bondholders.

In the Highway 121 case, for example, NTTA has promised to pay the state $3.3 billion in cash to help finance a stream of other North Texas projects. The money will come from the sale of bonds secured by future toll revenue that exceeds what is needed to build and operate Highway 121 in Denton and Collin counties.

"Obviously money talks," Mr. Jackson said. Still, he said the new approach is necessary because of the paucity of funds from more traditional sources such as state and federal gas taxes.

Mr. Morris agreed.

"We're in such a financial crisis when it comes to transportation that the gas taxes are basically paying for the maintenance of the roads we already have," Mr. Morris said. "Ten years from now the only improvements we will be able to make will be the ones that are paid for by toll roads."

Fairness of toll rate
Some local leaders say they can stomach the increasing number of toll roads. But they say it's wrong to abandon the old policy of keeping toll rates as low as possible.
Frisco City Manager George Purefoy is among them. It's bad enough, he said, that Frisco's two main avenues to the rest of the Dallas-Fort Worth area – Highway 121 and Dallas North Tollway – both will be tolled.

But what's worse, he said, is that Frisco drivers will be paying artificially high rates just so NTTA can borrow the billions it has promised to pay upfront. He says the higher toll rates amount to an extra tax on drivers unlikely to use the roads on which the extra money is spent.

"Everyone wants to keep focusing on how much money the region is getting from this project, and no one seems to care how much more drivers are going to have to pay," he said. "Our drivers are going to have to pay a toll, an extra tax and then the gas tax, too."

The Frisco City Council is considering filing suit to try to block the toll road, Mayor Mike Simpson said, but no decision has been made.

Last week, Mr. Morris said that legal threat could make it more difficult for NTTA to close the Highway 121 deal within the deadline.

In the meantime, drivers may need to get used to paying higher tolls – a price transportation officials such as Mr. Morris said is needed if residents want to ease the congestion that continues to clog North Texas roads.

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