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Is Dallas-Fort Worth being penalized for building toll roads?

Traffic moves west along the frontage road of west bound Loop 820 near North Beach Street in Fort Worth, Texas in April 2015.
Traffic moves west along the frontage road of west bound Loop 820 near North Beach Street in Fort Worth, Texas in April 2015. Star-Telegram archives

A huge number of toll roads have been built in recent years, or are currently under construction, in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.

As a result, traffic is already moving faster on corridors such as Loop 820 in Northeast Tarrant County, Texas 114/121 in Grapevine, Chisholm Trail Parkway in south Fort Worth and Interstate 635 in Dallas than it has in decades. More relief will be on the way when the reconstruction of Interstate 35W, including four tolls lanes, is completed in 2018 in north Fort Worth.

But local transportation officials say they are now concerned that the state’s transportation leadership will effectively penalize North Texas for being so aggressive in buildings those toll roads. As the state prepares to portion out tax-supported funds over the next 10 years, North Texas — which has already handled its most glaring traffic problems with an estimated $14 billion investment in roads with a toll component — could see a smaller portion of tax-supported highway dollars.

Those funds could instead be spent on transportation needs elsewhere in the state, they say.

$66 billion available for Texas transportation projects during the next 10 years, including $38.3 billion in new funding sources.

The North Texas region resorted to building toll roads beginning about 15 years ago because the state was sorely lacking in sufficient tax-supported funds to build roads. Since then, the availability of highway dollars has seriously rebounded, and Texas is poised to receive $66 billion in state and federal highway funds over the next 10 years, starting in fiscal year 2018, including a stunning $38.3 billion in new funds, according to a draft version of the state’s 10-year planning document.

But the Texas Transportation Commission is retooling the formulas used to distribute those $66 billion in funds across the state, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Some Metroplex leaders say it’s quite possible a disproportionate share will go to rural areas where residents haven’t had to deal with toll roads, which would be unfair to residents of the Metroplex who pay not only gas taxes at the pumps but also tolls.

“There has to be some principal of fair share to the regions,” Morris said last week during a discussion of the issue in Arlington.

Big dollars for roads

The controversy has erupted as the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, is working on an annual update of its Unified Transportation Program — a document that traditionally serves as a road map for spending state and federal road dollars over a revolving 10-year period.

The commission is expected to approve the latest UTP document in late August, and is currently seeking public comment on it. Public meetings will be held on the subject Thursday in both Fort Worth and Dallas.

Texas traditionally gets its highway funds from motor fuels taxes collected at the pumps — 20 cents per gallon in state taxes, and 18.4 cents per gallon in federal taxes, for gasoline — as well as from vehicle registration fees paid by vehicle owners for their windshield stickers each year.

The more you choose local sources of funds, whether that’s local taxes or local tolls, the more money will be invested in your community. You will not be penalized for being aggressive with local funding.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson, to North Texas leaders in 2003

The 44-member Regional Transportation Council, most of whom are local elected officials from the North Texas region, discussed the issue at length earlier this month. Morris asked the group to approve a resolution calling for the state transportation commission to increase funding for congestion relief by $5 billion. The resolution also called for a formula to be created to ensure that no one urban region took a disproportionate share of the funds.

Vandergriff steps in

But the RTC declined to approve the resolution put forward by Morris. Instead, the RTC agreed with a request by Victor Vandergriff, an Arlington businessman who serves as one of five members of the state transportation commission. Vandergriff spoke to the RTC as a guest, and asked the RTC not to approve a resolution that would potentially put the Dallas-Fort Worth area at odds politically with new statewide transportation leadership put in place under the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott.

Since Abbott took office in 2015, the transportation commission has experienced turnover in three of its five positions — including the arrival of new chairman Tryon Lewis and members Bruce Bugg and Laura Ryan. Those three took the places of Ted Houghton, Fred Underwood and Jeff Moseley.

The remaining two transportation commission members, Vandergriff and Jeff Austin, were appointed several years earlier by former Gov. Rick Perry and continue to serve.

“In my opinion, now is not the time to cause stress in the system by perhaps prematurely being aggressive in an approach concerned about a specific funding allocation,” Vandergriff told RTC members. Noting that metro areas are pegged to receive more than $21 billion of the new highway funding, Vandergriff added, “You have a lot of money coming your way. You have the opportunity for a lot more.”

What I’m hearing is, they’ve already made up their mind.

Ron Jensen, Grand Prairie mayor and RTC chairman

Several RTC members agreed with Vandergriff, saying it would be pointless to initiate a fight with the transportation commission when state legislators, many of whom favor increasing spending in rural areas, would likely steer the highway funds away from the metro areas anyway.

“What I’m hearing is, they’ve already made up their mind,” said Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen, who recently was appointed RTC chairman.

Jensen noted that so far no other metro areas in the state have protested the transportation commission’s plans for the money, which means Dallas-Fort Worth could be fighting the battle alone.

“Why should we piss them off when we don’t have to? Excuse the language, but that’s a fact,” Jensen told RTC.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley also favored a more measured response, saying the region has “made a lot of progress” in building its influence with the transportation commission.

A handful of other RTC members objected, noting that in 2003 when the North Texas region was in the midst of aggressive toll road planning, then-transportation commissioner Ric Williamson of Weatherford offered a promise on behalf of the state.

“The more you choose local sources of funds, whether that’s local taxes or local tolls, the more money will be invested in your community,” Williamson, who died in 2007, said at that time. “You will not be penalized for being aggressive with local funding.”

Some RTC members, including DFW Airport representative Bernice Washington, urged the group to listen to Morris and take action on a resolution asking for more congestion-busting funding for metro areas.

Washington told Vandergriff she appreciated his call for a more measured response, but said she had a “trust issue” with state government and suspected that if the RTC refused to take action the Dallas-Fort Worth area would indeed lose billions of dollars in highway funds.

“I tell you, I personally have a trust issue,” she said. “That’s where my angst lies. Will they deliver on their promises and not penalize us for being aggressive? That is where my concern lies.”

Frisco Mayor Maher Maso added: “It’s about the commitments that were made. Through the success of the region, I don’t think we need to be penalized.”

Even though the resolution failed on a voice vote, the RTC urged Morris to travel to Austin and speak with transportation commission members about the North Texas region’s concerns about funding fairness.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson

Nearly 50 miles of toll road have opened in the Fort Worth area in the past couple of years, and the ramps leading to them aren't always clearly marked.

Texas highway funding

The Texas Department of Transportation will hold a public meeting to hear comments about its proposed 2017 Unified Transportation Program — a document that serves as a 10-year guide for road spending.

When: 4 p.m. Thursday

Where: TxDot Fort Worth District office, 2501 S W Loop 820, Fort Worth, Texas 76133.

More information: Residents may also view the meeting online and make comments at