A huge financial roadblock that has delayed full-blown construction of the Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail Parkway toll road in Fort Worth was resolved Tuesday despite concerns that the complicated arrangement puts the state's gas tax fund at risk.
The Texas Transportation Commission approved an agreement that clears the way for a $400-million-plus federal loan to be used on Texas 161 in Irving and Grand Prairie. While that project is about 20 miles east of Southwest Parkway, the two projects are being funded jointly.
Supporters hailed the agreement, saying it clears the way for the long-overdue roads to be completed.
But one critic says the state put up too much of its gas tax revenue as collateral for the two projects -- a combined $6.4 billion over 20 years. The deal has been in the works for more than seven months, but it was held up until Texas agreed to back the loan with gas tax dollars in case toll revenue doesn't cover the debt.
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"I don't think this is what we agreed to, to be on the hook for potentially 20 years," said Commissioner Ted Houghton of El Paso. Despite Houghton's opposition, the measure was approved 3-1.
Other commissioners said they were comfortable with the arrangement, saying it is highly unlikely that gas tax funds will be needed to pay the debt. Both projects are being built in fast-growing areas of Dallas-Fort Worth, where a lack of traditional highway funding is forcing officials to seek alternatives to meet growing traffic demands.
"It certainly is bold, and it is not risk-free," said Commissioner Bill Meadows of Fort Worth. "What I appreciate and admire is we're willing to take those risks in order to serve the citizens of this state. For all intents and purposes, this assures the roadway will be delivered."
The Texas 161 project will serve as a western extension of the President George Bush Turnpike. The state is backing as much as $4.1 billion on that project, which is already under construction.
On Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail, which will run 28 miles from central Fort Worth to Cleburne, the state is backing $2.3 billion.
Portions of that project are being paid for with about $120 million in federal stimulus funds, including an interchange with I-20 and Texas 183 in southwest Fort Worth, a U.S. 67 connection in Cleburne and a bridge over the Davidson rail yard and Hulen Street.
But construction of the main lanes has been delayed, partly because it was awaiting Tuesday's action. A few other procedural steps remain, including an environmental study of the Johnson County portion.
Gas taxes are traditionally the primary way Texans pay for their roads. The state charges 20 cents per gallon, and the federal government charges 18.4 cents. A chronic shortage of those tax funds has led state leaders to pursue toll projects.
The commission is the governing body of the Texas Department of Transportation, which has agreed to let the North Texas Tollway Authority be the lead agency on the projects.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796