There's something fascinating happening in Collin County. Residents are voicing an opinion on an issue -- in this case they loathe the idea of tolled "managed lanes" running down their portion of Central Expressway -- and, lo and behold, their duly elected leaders, including Collin County's entire legislative delegation and commissioners court, are taking up their cause. Not only did they write a letter to the Texas Department of Transportation and the Regional Transportation Council urging them to make HOV lanes free to all rather than charging for their use, but several of them stood before the Texas Transportation Commission yesterday, the better to voice their constituents' concerns. It's a bit weird. No one in Dallas County was doing that eight or nine years ago when
toll TEXpress Lanes were being penciled in for the rebuilt LBJ and Interstate 35.
Why are Collin County leaders raising hell while Dallas', faced with the exact same issue, meekly deferred to the wisdom of regional transportation planners? Reflexive conservative populism seems to be the proximate cause of the Collin County leaders' revolt, but it's not much of an explanation for why Dallas stayed calm. Everybody hates toll roads.
Another possibility is that Dallas is just smarter than the northern suburbs, realizing that if lanes aren't tolled to make up the Legislature's failure to adequately fund road construction and maintenance, our infrastructure will crumble and our economy will die. Or maybe we're so accustomed to having unpalatable transportation projects forced down our throats that we've lost the will to protest.
It was probably a little bit of both. Angela Hunt was a member of the Dallas City Council's transportation committee around the time the managed lanes were being proposed for LBJ. She opposed them on principal, both the thought of charging people to use roads that had been paid for with tax dollars and the stratification that would occur between drivers who could afford to use the toll lanes and those who couldn't.
She didn't get a whole lot of backing at the time. State Representative-elect Linda Koop chaired the transportation committee at the time and had a spot on the RTC She and most of the other decision-makers in Dallas thought toll lanes necessary to keep pace with infrastructure needs, and Hunt doesn't remember much of a public outcry.
That might be different today, Hunt says, but it would depend on where the tolled lanes were proposed. Try to plant them in the stretch of Central between downtown and the Park Cities and it would likely rouse politically astute East Dallas and the well-connected deep pockets in Preston Hollow and the Park Cities.
"As more and more lanes are tolled, I think that drivers are revolting," Hunt says. "Many people are frustrated to see lane after lane become costly to drive on -- especially on roads we thought we'd paid for.
"The claim used to be that toll roads would be purchased and paid for by tolls and that the debt would be paid off. Folks are very frustrated to see the broken promise of former toll roads not becoming free roads but [also that] toll roads are taking over roads that are already built."
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In other parts of Dallas, where the people around the freeway either aren't paying attention or don't know how to work the political system, Hunt thinks tolls might be put in place with no serious objection.
Sort of like what's happening on the stretch of I-35 just south out of downtown. Tolled lanes there are being planned in relative quiet. There certainly haven't been any outcries from local policy makers.
What this means is that if Dallasites hope to stop the onslaught of tolls, the time is now to don a tricorne and wave the flag of liberty on City Hall Plaza. Or to shrug and bitch about traffic. Your call.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.