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Paying the Toll, One Road at a Time

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When there’s a transportation crisis in this region, it’s a given that Michael Morris will make an appearance. And sure enough, with six projects scheduled for delay because of the Texas Department of Transportation's funding crisis, Morris, Director of Transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, was there to do damage control at Monday’s meeting of the city council's Transportation and Environment Committee.

Morris offered a three-pronged explanation as to what got this region into its current predicament. First, you’ve got a lot of growth in this area, which creates a greater need for new roads; there’s also rising construction costs associated with building these roads. Second, the federal government approved a transportation bill that exceeded the amount of anticipated revenues in order to put pressure on colleagues to increase revenues to make up the gap. Of course, this never happened, and the money is going out faster than it’s coming in. Lastly, the state and regional policy is that maintenance on existing roads is the first priority for funds. Morris says TxDOT is reviewing pavement scores, which indicate more money needs to be spent on maintenance.

It’s prong No. 2 that leaves the deepest wound. Morris says the first round of federal rescissions cost the state $666 million -- $336 million was intended for the six areas projects alone -- and it wouldn’t surprise him if there was another $666 million in the next two rounds. This led to TxDOT deciding to delay all projects in the state from February to September. Morris admitted this isn’t the best way to determine which projects should proceed. “I’m not even sure the home office knew what was scheduled from February to September,” he said.

But we won't get screwed like the rest of the state, Morris insists. Fact is, says the NCTCOG transpo chieftain, this region’s leadership in building toll roads will help it through this crisis. “Thank God we took the beating we did on building a toll road on Highway 121,” he said.

Morris provided a spreadsheet showing the current funding commitments to the six projects facing delays, along with five others. He then offered up his proposed funding for the same projects. There were a lot of numbers and transportation mumbo-jumbo thrown around, confusing most of the people in the room.

What Morris essentially did is shuffle funding figures and dip further into the “emergency” account from the Highway 121 revenue. According to Morris, the Regional Transportation Council took 25 percent of the cash ($733 million) from Highway 121 proceeds and put it into an account to be used only for emergencies. Any money removed from this account would be paid back with interest. The remaining 75 percent ($2.5 billion) was split between Denton, Collin and Dallas counties. Dallas County received the least amount ($204 million) based on how much of 121 is in the county.

The way the current funding breaks down, the county would take $389.3 million from the emergency account, with $80.1 million earmarked for the President George Bush Turnpike extension right of way and $303.8 million for phases 2 and 3 of the State Highway 161 toll road. Morris’s proposal keeps this funding in place but increases the debt by $181 million to pay for the work on Interstate 30 for the PGBT extension, which would avoid delay on this project since the original funding was coming from gas taxes.

Two of the other project delays, the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and a Northwest Highway bridge near White Rock Creek, were solved by Morris taking money from the $204 million headed Dallas County’s way instead of using gas tax cash. The majority of that $204 million was originally budgeted for backstop costs associated with LBJ Freeway improvements. This “backstop” money is really “oh, shit” funds for once the project gets over budget and they need an extra $200 million.

Additionally, the mitigation for Highway 161 is delayed until late 2008 or 2009, and Morris said Bill Hale of TxDOT came up with a way where a temporary bridge that would help divert traffic during I-30 construction is no longer needed, eliminating $16.2 million in costs.

So if you’re keeping track, that covers five of the six projects. The sixth, raising Loop 12 in Irving for DART, saw no changes to its funding. The majority of the funding ($100.9 million) for this is supposed to come from the $336 million in state and federal gas tax receipts called “Category 2 Funds,” which is the money being held back by TxDOT.

Hale, the Dallas district engineer for TxDOT, told Unfair Park yesterday that this project is no longer in the February-through-September period and will be moved to October 2009, because DART won’t need it until fall of 2011. As with all of Morris’s money shifting and grabbing another $181 million from the Highway 121 emergency fund, everything still has to be approved by the RTC and TxDOT.

Morris also found a way to squeeze in funding for $66.8 million in “cost overruns,” which he said included some Trinity-related improvements, such as work on Industrial Boulevard. Once the word "Trinity" came out of his mouth, Angela Hunt wasn’t the only one listening.

Council member Carolyn Davis started asking about the improvements to S.M. Wright Freeway, which is in her district. Not only is Davis passionate about improving S.M. Wright, but this was how she urged her constituents to keep the Trinity Turnpike inside the levees. She knows delays in this project could cause her phone to start ringing, and she’d have some splainin’ to do.

Davis’s questioning got Morris to admit that approximately $50 million ($20 million for right of way and $30 million for engineering) dedicated toward S.M. Wright was not budgeted. Morris said he has to “do more research to find the funding,” but he stressed that commitments have been made for the engineering on all Trinity-related projects. Davis said she will be following the money on S.M. Wright, and with a laundry list of things to do in Dallas, TxDOT needed to think outside the box to put “more money into the hopper.” Morris said he’ll be getting more in depth at the February 5 Trinity Committee meeting.

As Morris pointed out, the last tax increase in transportation was 1991, and all pleas to Austin and Washington have fallen on deaf ears. We’d be “dead in the water” without the region’s leadership to build toll roads, he said.

Morris is an exceptionally smart man and a slick politician, but I sat there listening to his excitement over toll roads and had a much different view of how it affects Dallas. The way I saw it, TxDOT and the federal and state governments will be less willing to give funding to the region as a result of all the toll roads. When they look at Dallas, they’ll see a self-sustaining system with millions of dollars at its disposal.

Even if the tax rate is changed and all the money actually is spent on transportation, Dallas is going to be at the bottom of the list when it comes to handing out the dough. All the other counties with major transportation problems will beg for more money, citing Dallas’ ability to fund its own roads. This, of course, will only lead to more toll roads in this area. Highway 161 and the Trinity Turnpike are on the way, which will only give Dallas more self-sustaining ability.

From Morris’ perspective, toll roads are great because it makes his job a heck of a lot easier. Money is hard to come by, and building a region full of toll roads gives him more cash to play with. However, Morris isn’t thinking about the long-term effects of this.

Let’s say you’re running TxDOT with its very limited budget. You take a gander in this region and see it has access to a $733 million bank account and more money on the way from projects like Highway 161. Isn’t that going to affect how much you’re going to allocate to this area?

Morris is out of town, but Hale addressed my concerns. He says this region gets a flat amount of money from TxDOT, which is determined by a formula. The number of toll roads is not factored into it. However, Morris determines how the funding for this region is dispersed, which is then approved by TxDOT. Hale says the important part about the gas taxes is that they need to be indexed so that the region gets a consistent amount of money. “If you don’t, you constantly lose pace to inflation,” he tells Unfair Park.

Hale was asked how he felt about using so much of the emergency funds, and he says it’s not a problem as long as there is a payback plan in place. In Morris’s presentation, he said $303 million of the money used from this fund will be paid back at least by October 2010 from the bidder for Highway 161. Hale says McKinney Mayor Bill Whitfield and others have called him asking why so many regional funds were being given to Dallas. Projects in surrounding areas wouldn’t be ready until at least two years, and by then, most of the money will have been paid back, according to Hale.

Admittedly, this is a lot of information to digest. Pending approval, it looks like Morris saved the day. However, like council member Davis, we too will be watching the money. And given Morris’ love affair with toll roads, Dallas only figures to keep building more. Get your TollTags ready. --Sam Merten

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