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I-35W to be expanded north of downtown after project wins funding

By 2018, motorists will likely be driving on a rebuilt Interstate 35W, one with a combination of toll and free lanes, after the long-delayed project qualified Tuesday for a substantial federal loan that will pay for about 25 percent of its cost.

Although some motorists won't like paying tolls, area officials were elated to hear the Transportation Department's announcement that the project is eligible for a $415 million loan. They say that using a combination of free and toll lanes, which generate revenue to offset construction costs, was the only way to ensure that the project north of downtown Fort Worth could be under construction within 10 years.

"It's the first time I can say with certainty this project will be delivered," said Texas Transportation Commission member Bill Meadows of Fort Worth.

The work could begin in less than a year, and the rebuilt existing lanes and new toll lanes will likely be open by 2018, officials said.

The loan money, along with $150 million-plus in state funding the Texas Transportation Commission is expected to pitch in later this week, is the final funding piece for the estimated $1.63 billion project. The loan will be repaid with proceeds from the managed toll lanes in the corridor.

Managed toll lanes allow motorists to buy their way out of congestion. Motorists could continue to use the free lanes, which would likely handle traffic much better because of improved design, or hop on the toll lanes for a guaranteed fast trip. But there's a trade-off -- the rates on the managed toll lanes would vary with traffic, and during peak times could theoretically reach 75 cents per mile.

A contracting goliath

The plan calls for rebuilding lanes and adding four -- two toll lanes in each direction -- from Interstate 30 near downtown Fort Worth to North Tarrant Parkway, north of the U.S. 287 split. The split, also known as the Decatur Cutoff, would also be rebuilt.

The I-35W expansion will become part of the North Tarrant Express project, which is under way on Loop 820 and Texas 121/183 in Northeast Tarrant County, Texas Department of Transportation officials say.

North Tarrant Express, already a $2.5 billion project, will grow to a $4.1 billion-plus contracting goliath. The project is managed by a group of private developers known as NTE Mobility Partners, whose lead agency is Cintra, a well-known Spanish toll road developer with a U.S. headquarters in Austin.

NTE Mobility Partners and the state Transportation Department will enter into a new financial contract to add the I-35W piece, Meadows said.

Special loan program

The loan will be part of the federal government's Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, also known as TIFIA, which allows loans for transportation improvements to be paid back with favorable interest rates and over longer times than other forms of debt. Projects are selected partly based on the overall economic benefits to a region and ability to connect residents to jobs.

In the case of I-35W, that means connecting downtown Fort Worth with the Alliance Airport area on the city's far north side while providing better access for residents of Northeast Tarrant County.

"A little TIFIA goes a long way for communities that use these loans to leverage additional funding so they can tackle the big picture transportation projects this country needs," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

The I-35W project was one of five selected nationwide for such a loan, and the dollar amount represents nearly a third of the $1.5 billion set aside for the entire program, he said.

"TIFIA can help move projects forward, which will create jobs and strengthen the economy," Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez said. "Given current fiscal constraints, the program provides an invaluable opportunity for states and localities to leverage limited resources."

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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