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January 13, 2014

Free retiree TollTags: Offsetting the burden of Chisholm Trail Parkway

Tarrant County officials have agreed to offset the financial burden of Chisholm Trail Parkway - a proposed 28-mile toll road - by providing free TollTags for up to 400 retirees.

Residents of a retirement community in southwest Tarrant County will be offered free TollTags for up to three years to offset the inconvenience of a neighborhood road closure that officials say was necessary for the Chisholm Trail Parkway toll road project.

The Regional Transportation Council last week approved the unusual plan to provide the complimentary devices so that about 400 residents of St. Francis Village, a small retirement enclave near Benbrook Lake, can use the toll road without paying for it. Chisholm Trail Parkway, a 28-mile toll road connecting downtown Fort Worth to Cleburne, is expected to open by mid-June.

The plan was requested by Tarrant County commissioners, who intend to repay the RTC roughly $100,000 over three years. The precise amount will depend upon how many retirees request and receive the free TollTags, officials said.

Each TollTag will be loaded with $250 in credit, which can be used for up to three years.

The idea of providing free TollTags, which are attached to a windshield so motorists can pay tolls electronically, surfaced after officials announced that they intended to close a portion of Old Granbury Road. That road was commonly used by St. Francis Village residents to reach Farm Road 1187 for doctor visits, shopping and other trips.

Residents of St. Francis Village, which is just outside the Fort Worth city limits, said they were caught off guard by the closure. County officials conceded that in recent years the neighborhood had been inadvertently left out of some of the planning process for the toll project, much of which was driven by the city.

“There was an oops, and the oops was that everyone thought the road was in the city of Fort Worth — and it’s a county road,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, an RTC member. “The city was focused on the city’s part of it, and nobody included the county at the time and we needed to include them in the planning.”

Although the planning process for the toll road was lengthy and included a series of public meetings and hearings beginning in the early 2000s, Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks, whose precinct includes the area, said he learned of the decision to barricade Old Granbury Road only in 2012.

‘Least expensive fix’

The portion of Old Granbury Road in question — about a mile north of Farm Road 1187 — was closed late last year when it was permanently bisected by the toll road. It created dead ends for both north and south traffic.

To improve mobility for local traffic in the area, Fort Worth officials extended a new portion of McPherson Boulevard from near St. Francis Village to Summer Creek Drive. But that route roughly doubles the travel time from the retirement area to Farm Road 1187, now about 12 minutes, RTC officials said.

Some residents of St. Francis Village questioned why the North Texas Tollway Authority, the lead agency building Chisholm Trail Parkway, couldn’t simply build a bridge for Old Granbury Road over the toll road.

“This is a public, tax-supported road that they're destroying,” St. Francis Village resident Bill Humm told the Star-Telegram in July. Humm and other area residents collected hundreds of signatures on petitions opposing the closure of Old Granbury Road and asking for a bridge.

Reached Monday by phone, Humm said he hadn’t heard about last week’s RTC approval of the free TollTags proposal.

But RTC officials said building a new bridge would cost millions of dollars and isn’t a justifiable expense considering that Old Granbury Road only carried about 2,700 vehicles per day.

“We think this is the least expensive fix,” Whitley said.

Some of RTC’s 43 members expressed concern about providing free TollTags. Among them was Carrollton Mayor Matthew Marchant, who cast the lone vote against the proposal.

Marchant noted that there are many residents in his city and many others that also could use help paying tolls, but no one is stepping up to offer them a free TollTag.

“I cast a little bit of a cynical eye on an entitlement like this,” Marchant said. “I understand it’s a hardship and don’t doubt that. But I think there’s lots of hardships across the community.”

Others on the RTC said their similar concerns were addressed by assurances from Tarrant County that the $100,000 was in effect a loan that would be paid back.

Avoiding political pressures

Offering free TollTags could be a useful tool for future toll road projects, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. It could be a way to reduce the overall cost of many road projects — by avoiding local political pressures to build overpasses and underpasses that can’t be economically justified because the roads don’t carry enough traffic.

But Morris and others stressed that the measure would be a temporary option offered one time only, most likely in the next couple of months as the anticipated June opening of the Chisholm Trail Parkway nears.

As for anyone who moves into St. Francis Village after the toll road is open, Morris and other officials said, it will be assumed they’re aware of the presence of the toll road when they make their decision to relocate and they won’t be offered a freebie.

A meeting will be held at St. Francis during the next few months to offer the option to residents, although specific details haven’t been released. Residents who accept the free TollTags will be asked to informally declare that they need the TollTags because of a financial burden, but they will not have to provide personal information, and no background check will be conducted, Morris said.

“This is a TollTag sticker that will stay with the car,” Morris said. “We don’t want a nephew to take Grandpa’s car [but] if a family member uses up all $250 in three months, then they would pay their own TollTag usage after that.”

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