Here's a quick Monday-morning discussion question for you Friends of Unfair Park: Have you stopped or cut back on taking the Dallas North Tollway in these lean times? My monthly bill recently hit $120, so it's Stemmons Freeway -- go, Speed Racer! -- for me until some bills are paid off. What about you?
The costs of tolls and toll roads came up during a chat Friday afternoon with Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell about a proposal by Commissioner Maurine Dickey to create a Dallas County Toll Road Authority. Dickey wants to the authority to be an alternative way for the county to borrow money to build much-needed roads. Dickey calls that "thinking outside the box."
Cantrell thinks the idea should go back inside whatever box it came out of.
Dickey's reasoning is pretty straightforward: The Texas Department of Transportation, the feds and the North Texas Tollway Authority are tapped out for the foreseeable future when it comes to money for new road construction in the county. She has a list of 12 projects she's says are vital to keep up with the county's booming population -- the Loop 9 toll road in the southern part of the county and the Trinity Parkway for instance -- that will be long delayed unless some form of alternative funding is found. (Yes, Jim, the Trinity Parkway was on her list. Just sayin')
The Legislature in its next session may do away with the law that allows counties to create the toll road authorities, she says, so she's urging the commissioners court to move quickly. Dickey says she doesn't want to replace the NTTA or get the county up to its neck in the toll-road business. The county could form all sorts of public-private partnerships, including with the NTTA, to build and manage roads the county helps finance. "It's another tool in the tool chest," Dickey says.
Sounds simple enough. What are we missing?
"I'm missing something on showing in how it's advantageous to the county," Cantrell says. "It's really a slap in the face to all of the partners we've been working with day in and day out to get the projects done that needed to be done."
Cantrell says a toll road authority would add a whole new layer of complexity to road construction, mire the county in debt and damage the regional partnerships and planning that have made the North Texas a leader in dollars spent on road construction nationally.
Part of what prompted Dickey to write that memo week urging commissioners to create a toll road authority was NTTA's decision last month to agree to build the $1.2 billion State Highway 161 between Grand Prairie and Irving. As part of a little horse-trading to get that deal, the NTTA will build the Southwest Parkway in Tarrant County.
Dickey says that 161 is likely to have enough traffic to quickly be a moneymaker for NTTA, though Southwest Parkway won't. In any case, the cost of the two roads means NTTA won't be developing any new roads for as much as a decade. That's typical, says Dickey: Dallas County often gets the "short end of the stick" when it comes to highway spending.
Not quite, says Cantrell. He points out that the NTTA will pay the state $458 million for the right to build and collect tolls on 161, money that will eventually coming flowing back into the region for work on other road projects. As far as Dallas County getting shafted, he notes that Southwest Parkway is NTTA's first road in Tarrant County, though Tarrant County drivers have long been pay tolls on NTTA's other roads just like the rest of us.
Besides, even if you assume that all 12 projects on Dickey's list are suitable for toll roads -- and Cantrell says that's not the case, even if voters would stomach that many toll booths -- none of them are likely to be quick moneymakers from tolls. So the county could find itself "upside-down" on a Loop 9 toll road, for example, paying interest on bonds for years while waiting for toll collections to cover the cost of construction and operation.
"People, they're kind of upset if you start making everything into a toll road, because that costs a lot of money for someone to drive on a toll road every single day," Cantrell says.
Most important, Cantrell says, Dallas County has been operating on a "pay-as-you-go" system for major capital projects for years while working to eliminate its debts. The savings in interests from paying upfront are huge, he says. Over the 30 years it would take to pay back a $1 billion bond issue, for example, the county could directly pay for $3 billion in projects under pay-as-you-go.
"What I don't want to do is get into using property taxes to build toll roads and then charge tolls," he says.