DFW officials put their foot down over toll projects

LEWISVILLE -- After years of enduring one toll project on top of another, North Texans are striking back and insisting that they get some new free lanes, too.

This latest twist in the state's effort to keep up with congestion is playing out on Interstate 35E, a 28-mile corridor from Interstate 635 in Dallas to U.S. 380 in Denton. The highway is overdue for a makeover that could cost more than $4 billion and is tentatively scheduled to begin in about a year.

Denton County officials have accepted that the project will include new toll lanes in the median, which will allow motorists to buy their way out of congestion on the main lanes. But they're also insisting that the project add at least one free lane in each direction.

The county has saved $600 million to contribute to the project, but officials have told the Texas Department of Transportation that they won't play ball unless free lanes are included in the first phase of road work.

"TxDOT for a while has said they want to be sensitive to local desires," said John Polster, Denton County transportation consultant. "We had to show that $600 million would not build enough of what people wanted. The intent was to show that, if we're going to build something we're going to have to have more partnerships."

The effort to pay for I-35E expansion is expected to be among the hot topics at the Texas Transportation Forum, an annual event hosted by the Transportation Department today and Friday in San Antonio.

The I-35E project is different from other recent road work in North Texas in that there's a concerted effort to include free lanes in the earliest construction phase.

By contrast, in Tarrant County, the $2.5 billion reconstruction of Northeast Loop 820 and Texas 121/183 -- a project known as North Tarrant Express -- includes the addition of four managed toll lanes but no new free lanes until possibly as late as December 2030, according to the state's contract with the developer.

The I-35E project would more closely resemble the $1 billion DFW Connector under way in Grapevine -- a project that does include new free lanes as well as managed toll lanes. A lack of funding delayed that project for years, until it was kick-started in 2009 by $250 million in federal stimulus funds.

On I-35E, Denton County has perhaps more leverage than other local entities because of the $600 million it is bringing to the table. The money comes from Denton County's share of the $3.2 billion paid to the region by the North Texas Tollway Authority in 2007 to take over the Texas 121 project, now the Sam Rayburn Tollway.

Residents revolt

When initial reports surfaced that Denton County's $600 million would be enough to build only managed toll lanes on I-35E, residents revolted. Even elected officials who hadn't been involved in transportation issues began to ask questions.

"I really think we need to expand I-35. However, we need to be zealous in how we do it," said Denton County Commissioner Hugh Coleman, who spoke during a recent stakeholders meeting. "We need to make sure we do it right, because it's one of the most valuable transportation properties in Texas."

The Transportation Department and North Central Texas Council of Governments are holding numerous private conversations to determine how much money can be added to the project. By some estimates, Denton County's $600 million could be combined with $300 million in unspecified state transportation funds and $600 million from the council of governments for a total of $1.5 billion.

That amount, officials say, should be more than enough to ensure that the initial phase of construction includes one new free lane in each direction, two managed toll lanes and a complicated array of ramps connecting I-35E to the President George Bush Turnpike and Sam Rayburn Tollway on a busy 1.5-mile stretch in Lewisville.

But for now, state officials are keeping mum about precisely where they'll get the money, although they hope to decide within 30 days.

"Absolutely understand this is a project of statewide priority," said Texas Transportation Commissioner Bill Meadows of Fort Worth. "But the project has become complicated just by the sheer magnitude of it."

Options for building

Once the funding picture is more clear, regional leaders must decide whether to seek a private developer to take over the project for 52 years in the form of a comprehensive development agreement. State law allows only a limited number of projects with that arrangement, which is often criticized because it tends to draw interest from foreign-based companies.

Another option would be a design-build arrangement, similar to what is being used on the DFW Connector. Design-build would allow an outside developer to oversee construction of toll and free lanes, while letting the state keep control of the corridor -- and the toll revenue.

Although the design-build arrangement might be more politically expedient, a comprehensive development agreement could give the region more bang for its bucks because an outside developer could invest its own money in the project in return for the right to collect tolls.

Once the Transportation Department and council of governments announce their funding levels, a state-formed committee will determine which type of developer to hire for the I-35E project.

The committee will weigh factors such as financial risk and tolling structure, said Polster, one of the committee's seven members.

Then, the state will publish a request for proposals -- a process similar to bidding -- and select a best value. Everyone involved hopes that such work can be done by December, making it possible to begin the road work by early next year.

Although negotiations between state agencies are often tense, North Texans have become quite good at delivering projects with alternative sources of revenue rather than relying on state and federal gas taxes, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the council of governments. Morris is confident that the public will be happy with the I-35E improvements.

"You'll see elements of gas tax lanes. You'll see elements of managed lanes," he said. "I think it will be an amazing combination of elements."

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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