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Makeover of NE Loop 820, Airport Freeway will start soon

09/29/2010 11:29 PM

09/30/2010 5:53 AM

With all the talk about the $1 billion DFW Connector project under way in Grapevine, Tarrant County motorists may not realize that an even bigger project is about to kick off just down the road.

It's the megamakeover of Northeast Loop 820 and Airport Freeway, a $2-billion-plus job dubbed the North Tarrant Express, which cuts through far north Fort Worth, Haltom City, North Richland Hills, Hurst, Euless and Bedford.

By late October, motorists will see the beginning of work zone preparations, particularly near the always strapped 820/Interstate 35W interchange, said Robert Hinkle, spokesman for developer North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners.

And as early as 2012, work may begin on another Northeast Tarrant project -- the addition of toll lanes on Interstate 35W from I-30 near downtown Fort Worth to North Tarrant Parkway, just past the U.S. 287 split.

That phase was initially not planned for at least a decade, but on Wednesday state officials announced a tentative agreement with Mobility Partners to add the I-35W work, including a makeover of the poorly designed interchange at I-35W and 820 and removal of all left-lane exits -- and get those new lanes open by 2017.

In all, the work on Loop 820, 121/183 and I-35W could total $3.3 billion, most of which Mobility Partners, led by Spain-based Cintra, would bring to the table.

In return, it would keep tolls collected on the project for 52 years. The toll lanes would be all-electronic, and motorists would pay them via a TollTag.

Those without a TollTag would have their license plates photographed and be billed.

Public funds spent on the project would total $773 million, including at least $10 million from Tarrant County for right of way and utilities.

Initial work on the North Tarrant Express project shouldn't cause major traffic disruptions, Hinkle said.

"They'll start putting the pad sites down and preparing the sites for heavy equipment and the cranes between now and the end of the year," Hinkle said.

But he said drivers probably won't have to worry about narrow lanes or other obstructions that could significantly slow their commute until late this year or early 2011.

Mobility Partners plans to invite the public to an open house Oct. 27 in Hurst to make sure area residents understand what to expect during an estimated four years of construction.

Northeast 820 will likely be the first area of the project under construction, during winter, followed by work on Texas 121/183 -- aka Airport Freeway -- probably in the spring, he said. But at different times during the next four years, several stretches of road could be under construction simultaneously.

The project includes reconstruction of existing lanes, plus two new toll lanes in each direction of 820 and 121/183. Frontage roads, safer ramps and flyovers will also be added.

That work, which totals about $2.1 billion, is expected to be completed by 2015.

The tentative deal for work on the I-35W toll lanes requires an extra $135 million in public funds, possibly from Proposition 14 bonds backed by state gas taxes.

In October, the Texas Transportation Commission will consider the deal.

Texas has a logjam of several hundred road projects because of a shortage of state tax-supported funds. Communities that bring outside revenue to projects can expect them to go to the top of the list of state priorities, one official noted.

"I hold up the creativity in the Metroplex as an example the rest of the state needs to look at," commission member Ned Holmes of Houston said. "It's very impressive."

Transportation Department officials and some lawmakers have said the state will run out of tax-supported funds for new road work by 2012 and will then use its highway fund mostly for maintenance.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

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