Greasing the Wheels

How Texas Motor Speedway got Denton County to pay for a freeway exit to nowhere—except, that is, to the speedway


With the help of politicians and bureaucrats, the whole interchange project took only about 14 months. A comparable interstate interchange on the other side of the county has a project schedule of 746 days. Polster agrees that the interchange was completed quickly.

"We took a three-year process and did it...in about 14 months, give or take a month," Polster says.

Today, more than three years after Carter introduced his multimillion-dollar traffic plan, the speedway interchange is the only project of the plan that is completed. The other projects that are supposed to link up with the system of roads around the interchange for future growth are still in various stages of planning but will eventually be completed, Polster says.

A barricade marks the end of the road at an Interstate 35 interchange built for the benefit of Texas Motor Speedway. Denton County taxpayers paid for the lion's share of the freeway exit, which gives motorists easy access to the speedway--and nowhere else of consequence.
Mark Graham
A barricade marks the end of the road at an Interstate 35 interchange built for the benefit of Texas Motor Speedway. Denton County taxpayers paid for the lion's share of the freeway exit, which gives motorists easy access to the speedway--and nowhere else of consequence.
Attorney Bill Trantham says Denton County officials were more starstruck than sensible in their dealings with the Texas Motor Speedway.
Mark Graham
Attorney Bill Trantham says Denton County officials were more starstruck than sensible in their dealings with the Texas Motor Speedway.

No one can say or will explain clearly why the speedway interchange was suddenly deemed critical in late 1999 when just a year before it was not even included in the $85 million road bond package. A specially appointed committee had devoted many hours judiciously drawing up a list of Denton County road projects proposed for inclusion in that bond election. The list was not static, and the total bond election amount grew during the planning process along with the list of "important" projects for "better, safer roads" in the county. Besides that, the interchange had been planned and known to officials since at least 1996, when the speedway agreed to pay "100 percent."

It was only after voters had approved the bond package and its list of projects that commissioners found "excess" bond funds that could be devoted to the interchange. There is nothing illegal about that, but there is a chance that the projects that were tapped for funds could end up costing more than originally thought, which is happening on at least one project.

A bridge and road project between Interstate 35 at Lake Dallas and the North Dallas Tollway, unrelated to the interchange, was one of the four that was pumped for interchange money. It is now known that the bridge will cost much more than commissioners thought it would back in 2000 when they agreed to transfer $1 million from it to the speedway interchange. The bridge project on Lake Lewisville is not being delayed, but commissioners will now have to borrow more and shuffle funds from other voter-approved road bond projects.

Several commissioners said they believed the money they devoted to the interchange is justified and that it represented making good on a previous commitment by Denton County to "give" the speedway $5 million for roads around the speedway.

"We had committed in the original MOU [memorandum of understanding] up to $5 million or up to $10 million in road construction," Armey says. "It was up to $5 million in road improvements, and of course no tax dollars went into the speedway itself, which was kind of a feat...I think that underlying commitment was still there."

In reality, that original commitment was money that was to be part of a loan that the speedway would be required to repay over 40 years with 6.25 percent interest. Gossage in 1996 announced that the speedway had decided that it wanted to speed up the road construction process without government restrictions and turned the loan proposal down.

"I don't think it was a loan," Armey says. "I think we committed to do up to $5 million in road improvements to make the whole deal and then at the time of the construction of the speedway they didn't need it, but I think that there was still a feeling that there was a commitment to get them here that we would look to help them out and the speedway interchange; this particular road, I think, came up later as far as this is an improvement that would be beneficial and necessary."

Armey says he did not use bond money that he controlled for the project, so he paid little attention to it.

"I did not put any dollars toward the speedway interchange because I didn't have any to spare," he says. "My philosophy has always been that I didn't tell the other commissioners how to spend their money and they didn't tell me how to spend my money."

Of the county officials that would talk to the Observer, all say that there was nothing wrong with the way the project was funded. They also say they didn't know Carey was under contract with the speedway while he was working on the state loan for a different road project.

If true, that means commissioners could not have known with any certainty if at any given time Carey considered himself to be working on behalf of the county for the state loan or on behalf of the speedway to get county money--an issue that apparently concerned Armey just before his congressional bid and Polster once he learned of this article.

Late January Polster sent a $2,430 check to Denton County to pay for questionable hours that Carey billed to the county back in 1999. Polster says he made the payment with interest in response to questions posed by Scott Armey several years before and after the inquiry for this article jogged his memory.

Claude "Buz" Elsom, Texas Department of Transportation area engineer in Denton, supervised the speedway interchange. He says the project was originally proposed as "third-party or not state-financed" and that's the only way it could have been financed based on traffic demands. The state just does not fund projects with public money to benefit private developments, he says.

"I don't think the state would ever want to come in and add an interchange without demand. I don't think we've got that kind of money," he says.

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