Longform

Plans for Texas' First Private Toll Road Roll On -- and Right Over People in its Path

For the people who live in the countryside east of Lake Ray Hubbard and Lake Lavon, the appeal is in the quiet rural roads, dense trees, wild animals in the woods and bright stars shining in the night sky.

To a Dallas company called the Texas Turnpike Corp., all that open space is a sign that not enough stuff has been built yet. "A review of an aerial map of the metroplex shows that there is a lack of development to the north and east of Dallas," said a report the corporation prepared and sent in 2012 to the mayor of Lavon, a small town on the eastern shore of the lake. "Lake Ray Hubbard and Lake Lavon have blocked access to the area and stifled growth."

Texas Turnpike Corp. had a fix for that "lack of development:" a private toll road, developed by none other than Texas Turnpike Corp. The corporation's report pointed to wealthier Collin County suburbs as an example of the positive effects of toll roads: "Similar to the lack of growth in northwest Collin County prior to the opening of the Dallas North Tollway, the area northeast of Dallas has not grown due to lack of adequate transportation infrastructure."

It's true that Lavon is no Frisco, for better or worse. The town in southeast Collin County has little in common with the paved, wealthy suburbs farther north. It's just 1.3 square miles and home to 2,400 people who live in an assortment of upper middle-class housing developments and cheap trailers deeper in the country. "You've got people out here that when gas hits four dollars a gallon, they have to decide whether they're going to quit their job or not," Mayor Chuck Teske says.

Teske and the other officials in Lavon had never heard of the Texas Turnpike Corp. until the company's executives got in touch with them in the fall of 2012, asking to meet with the City Council in both private and public. The corporation already boasted support from local transportation agencies and planned to start construction on the state's first private toll road in 2014. Still, the corporation's founder, John Crew, sent Teske a report detailing the need for a toll road, in hopes that the Lavon City Council would pass "a formal indication of support on the project."

The toll road was supposed to extend somewhere from Lavon to Greenville in order to relieve traffic on Interstate 30. Teske was open to the idea at first, he says, especially after getting assurances from the company in an early meeting that Collin County Commissioner Cheryl Williams supported it. "'In fact, we're sponsoring a table for her at a Republican fundraiser,'" Teske says project developer Neal Barker assured him.

At a later public meeting, however, the City Council found that Barker offered few specifics about the road -- the exact path hadn't been chosen and no engineers were on staff, recalls City Councilwoman Jenny Bodewell. The company still couldn't promise there would be any access ramps serving Lavon. The corporation promised to fund the road itself, at no expense to taxpayers, but also said it had the power of eminent domain, unusual for a private company.

And while other county commissioners had come out in support of the project, Commissioner Williams was hesitant. Barker backtracked his claim about having her support, Bodewell recalls. (Asked about that meeting, Barker now admits that "perhaps it was miscommunicated that she somehow supports the project" and adds that "any statement by me or anyone in our company that she did was wrong.")

To Bodewell, passing a resolution supporting the project with so few details felt like approving a blank check -- or a "shotgun wedding," as Teske saw it. The council voted not to take any action.

After his company's first failed attempt to win the city's support, Barker continued to politely press Lavon officials, asking for a chance to tell residents about the new toll road in a citywide newsletter. Barker even suggested the bullet-point facts about the toll road the city could include. The points, however, were similarly vague: "The ultimate alignment, not yet chosen, will be where public input and feasibility are maximized," was one. The company "expected" to have on-ramps in Lavon.

Barker reached out to the city again a few months later, emails show, asking for a private meeting with Mayor Teske and another chance to have the City Council to vote on a resolution supporting the road. The mayor refused, saying he needed more specifics. "I'm not inclined to bring it before the council again until we have better public disclosure in terms of what we are building, how it's being financed, who benefits and why some terms of the deal remain private," Teske wrote back.

Barker responded that he could disclose more about the project later, only if the mayor would agree to meet with him. "I am asking if it's possible to have a discussion about what Lavon would want should there be a new road connecting the city with I-30," Barker said in an email. "I think after we talk you will see that I am more than willing to disclose all pertinent details."

Teske had lost trust in Barker and ignored him. Now, those "pertinent details" of exactly who this toll roads benefits and where it's going to go remain a mystery to Lavon and other towns that may be in the path, even as Lavon residents have recently discovered workers hired by the Texas Turnpike Corp. placing survey markers through town.


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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn

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