Friday, October 19, 2007

Highway 121 money split - Denton, Collin get most of $3 billion; some in Collin upset

By THEODORE KIM - The Dallas Morning News - Friday, October 12, 2007

ARLINGTON – After years of arm-twisting over the sale of the State Highway 121 toll road, the payoff is finally here.

And while nobody got exactly what they wanted, forgive Denton County for smiling a little more than its neighbor to the east.

On Thursday, the Regional Transportation Council approved the division of the roughly $3 billion payout from the sale of the toll road to surrounding counties.

The decision came despite the grumbling of leaders in Collin County, who said the divisions will shortchange their county out of millions.

At stake is billions of dollars that will be generated almost immediately under the state's deal to sell tolling rights on Highway 121.

Earlier this year, the North Texas Tollway Authority agreed to pay the state $2.5 billion up front and $833 million in additional revenue for the right to collect tolls on the road for the next 50 years.

The council, a 40-member panel of local officials that sets transportation policy, was tasked with dividing that payout among area counties.

Under the plan, the majority of the money was set aside for Denton County, which will receive $1.56 billion, and Collin County, which will get $1.18 billion. The proposal was based in large part on estimates of how many vehicles will use the highway in each county in the future.

Those amounts fall far short of the roughly $9 billion in total requests the counties had initially made to the council for road projects.

Moreover, the counties will actually receive somewhat less because, in part, the earmarks include the cost of finishing Highway 121, slated for completion by decade's end.

Because of that, some officials said they felt the agreement unfairly penalizes Collin County. Denton's segment of the road, funded largely by gasoline-tax revenue, is mostly complete. Collin's half is being built now and will be funded by its portion of the toll-road deal.

Of Collin's payout, about half – $600 million – will help the NTTA finish the project. By comparison, Denton will contribute about $41 million to the project from its payout.

"Why are the construction costs of [Highway] 121 being added to the county's share?" asked Plano City Council member Loretta Ellerbe, the only transportation council member who voted against the plan. "It makes no sense."Thursday's action is the latest development in the closely watched sale of Highway 121, which runs about 30 miles between Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and U.S. Highway 75 near McKinney.

The project has come to symbolize the new and controversial way that communities nationwide are paying for roads and highways.

With gasoline-tax revenue unable to cover growing transportation needs, political leaders here and elsewhere have pioneered the practice of selling long-term tolling rights on roads in exchange for large upfront cash payments.

While others echoed Ms. Ellerbe's dissent, the transportation council said they generally supported the plan.

Member Cynthia White, a Denton County commissioner, encouraged her colleagues to set aside regional biases in favor of curtailing growing traffic across the area.

"All these [road] projects are interdependent," she said.

Another member, Collin County Commissioner Joe Jaynes, said he voted for the plan because in the end it will mean hundreds of millions for new roads.

"Nobody was completely satisfied," Mr. Jaynes said. "I think that's a sign of a good compromise."
Read more in the Dallas Morning News

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