North Texas' regional transportation officials recently announced that they would no longer recommend forcing people out of their homes in the countryside northeast of Dallas to build another toll road, because it turned out that people didn't like the idea. "We thought we had consensus that we should proceed in this direction, and obviously we were wrong," said Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, when we talked last week.
But does a regional transportation official's recommendation even mean anything anymore? In this fast-paced world of Texas transportation officials and unpopular toll road projects, the state is sending mixed messages about whether the toll road is really dead.
People have noticed that an important planning document released by the Texas Department of Transportation, called the 2015 Unified Transportation Program, still lists the toll road. "NEW LOCATION TOLL ROAD-BLACKLANDS CORRIDOR," TxDOT's UTP says.
We thought that the state wasn't supposed to approve the toll road unless the region did. So what's the toll road doing in the state's plans? A TxDOT spokesman offers this explanation in an email:
The Blacklands Corridor is included in the 2015 UTP for informational purposes as a privately funded project. There are no TxDOT, federal or RTC [regional transportation council] funds designated for the project. Because the proposed project does not involve RTC funds, it does not first have to go through the RTC for TxDOT to include it in the UTP. Ultimately, if the project advances, TxDOT and RTC plans will have to align.
The state doesn't need the region's approval, but it all has to align in the end. Another TxDOT spokesman explained the competing agendas of the region and the state this way to The Dallas Morning News: "They do cross paths, but they're not mutually exclusive."
Garland state Representative Cindy Burkett says it's bad news that the toll road is already in the document. "I am taken aback by the Transportation Commission's action of approving this UTP, on August 28, 2014, with the Blacklands toll road project contained therein given the overwhelming public opposition to this project," she says in a letter she sent to TxDOT a few days ago.
Meanwhile, there's been some talk of getting the Legislature to close a legal loophole that gives the private company proposing the toll road the power of eminent domain. On the other hand, the toll road company's founder John Crew has donated some money to lawmakers over the years, topping out at $15,000 this year for state senator/attorney general candidate Kenneth Paxton.
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Burkett's letter to TxDOT is below:
Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.