Honkin' Mad

Why this congested part of Loop 820 probably won’t get any new lanes until 2030

Loop 820 traffic - No new lanes likely until 2030

Traffic is congested on westbound Loop 820 in North Richland Hills, despite more than $2 billion in improvements including new toll lanes. but no new toll-free lanes are likely to be added until 2030.
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Traffic is congested on westbound Loop 820 in North Richland Hills, despite more than $2 billion in improvements including new toll lanes. but no new toll-free lanes are likely to be added until 2030.

Every day on her drive home from work, Kali Roberts is taken aback by the angry pile of motorists who converge on westbound Loop 820 in North Richland Hills.

Traffic coming from Texas 121/183 “Airport Freeway” must squeeze from four to two lanes, between Boulevard 26 and Rufe Snow Drive, causing gridlock that persists not only during rush hour periods but most of the day.

Meanwhile, as drivers on the nearby TEXPress lanes whiz by at 75 mph, motorists in the toll-free lanes crawl at about 10 mph and cut each other off, including many who drive illegally on an unusually wide shoulder.

“... I’m still experiencing the inconsiderate drivers taking the shoulder before Holiday Lane in the westbound lanes of 820,” Roberts said in a recent email to Honkin’ Mad, the Star-Telegram’s online feature in which North Texans are invited to submit traffic questions. “It really does need a third lane to help with congestion.”

It’s a problem the Texas Department of Transportation may not be able to fix until 2030, because of an unusual contract with a toll road partnership of companies.

In 2009, the Texas Department of Transportation inked a contract with North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, a group of companies that includes Spain-based Cintra, Luxembourg-based Meridiam Infrastructure and the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund. Those companies brought most of the money needed to expand Loop 820 and Texas 121/183, in exchange for the right to collect tolls on the TEXPress lanes for 52 years to repay themselves and make a profit.

The North Tarrant Express project was funded for about $2.153 billion, according to the developer’s contract with the state. The money used for the project included $570 million in tax-supported state funds from the Texas Department of Transportation, a $459.3 million subsidy bridge loan, $269.2 million in bond debt, $269.2 million in bank debt, a $538.4 million federal transportation loan and $457.9 million in equity provided by the partners.

Under the contract, the developer must initiate plans to build a third toll-free lane in each direction on Loop 820 beginning July 1, 2029, and complete the work by Dec. 31, 2030.

That would be the latest the area should get traffic relief, a state official said.

“Certain events may require these to be built sooner,” James Bass, Texas Department of Transportation executive director, said in a text several weeks ago.

The new toll-free lanes could be added sooner, based on a complicated formula that analyzes whether the money being collected on the nearby toll lanes exceeds a certain level. It’s difficult to specify how much money would need to be collected for the new toll-free lanes to be built, because it varies year to year and also depends upon North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners’ annual expenses.

The contract also calls upon the Texas Department of Transportation and North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners to calculate jointly toll lane revenues each year, and determine on an annual basis whether the amount collected has hit the threshold needed to require construction of additional lanes.

In addition to adding a third toll-free lane in each direction by 2030, the developer must also add a third toll lane in each direction, Bass said.

FTW_Loop820gridlocked5
Vehicles are often gridlocked on westbound Loop 820 seen here in North Richland Hills, TX, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. Max Faulkner mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

Locally, officials said they haven’t heard of any plans to add a third toll-free lane or a third toll lane. North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners hasn’t announced any new construction schedule for the corridor.

Oscar Trevino, mayor of North Richland Hills, is hopeful that area motorists won’t have to wait 11 years for traffic relief.

“With all the traffic in that area, the capacity is there to justify adding another lane,” Trevino said in a phone interview.

Meanwhile, Trevino said, North Richland Hills police try to work traffic duty on westbound Loop 820 whenever they can — especially pulling over motorists who drive on the shoulder illegally.

“We regularly enforce it with the motorcycle cops,” Trevino said, “but we can’t be there all the time.”

Fort Worth-area freeways such as I-35W, Loop 820 and Texas 121/183 have gotten makeovers totaling $3.7 billion, but those roads are still reviled by motorists.Bottlenecks are common where the toll lanes merge with the toll-free lanes.

Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.


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