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Compromise may lead to widening of Loop 820 in '09

ARLINGTON -- The North Texas Tollway Authority will pay $26 million to guarantee toll collections on the proposed expansion of Loop 820, a compromise that improves chances that the long-delayed project will be under construction by early 2009, officials said.

On Thursday, the Regional Transportation Council endorsed the compromise by the tollway authority and Texas Transportation Department, two agencies that are often at odds but are working together on the Loop 820 project.

Loop 820 is four lanes wide from North East Mall to Interstate 35W but would be expanded to six toll-free and four toll express lanes. It would be the first phase of a project known as North Tarrant Express, which also includes construction of new toll and nontoll lanes on I-35W in north Fort Worth and Texas 121/183 in Bedford, Euless and Hurst.

But private companies have been wary of bidding on the project because the tollway authority wasn't required to put up a bond guaranteeing that the developer would be paid.

Some RTC members worried that the tollway authority was taking money that should be spent on the east side of the Metroplex and using it to guarantee work on the west side.

But Tarrant County officials pleaded with their colleagues and noted that the $26 million payment could be used to guarantee toll collections on the east side, too.

"We are losing momentum daily," Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes told the RTC. "It's very important for 17 to 18 cities, from Fort Worth to Haslet."

The compromise also ends a nearly yearlong dispute between the tollway authority and Transportation Department over the Texas 121 toll road north of Grapevine. The tollway authority paid the transportation department $3.2 billion to take over the project, but the two agencies were at odds over the long-term value of interest payments. The department believed it was owed $52 million, but the tollway authority believed it owed nothing more.

They compromised by splitting the $52 million and placing the money into an account for the North Tarrant Express project.

Transit talk

The Regional Transportation Council heard an update Thursday from its transit committee, which is working with business leaders to come up with a politically palatable plan to build a regionwide commuter rail system and also generate money for new roads.

The choices to pay for the project, now known as Rail North Texas, have been narrowed to six combinations of new taxes and fees, including increases in sales taxes, gas taxes, motor vehicle taxes, vehicle registration fees, new resident vehicle impact fees and a transportation property tax.

The options would require approval from the Legislature and voters in Tarrant and other counties wishing to join the regional rail/road network. Tarrant County's interest is primarily rail, but other counties could choose to use the money on roads.

Read more at (keyword "rail north texas")

Source: North Central Texas Council of Governments