Council nearly united on 121 plan
By Mike Raye, Staff Writer, The Frisco Enterprise
It takes conviction to stand firm in your beliefs. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.”
Frisco’s mayor pro tem took the Founding Father’s advice and stood as steady as granite Tuesday night, casting the lone dissenting vote against the approval of a plan by the North Texas Tollway Authority to build, maintain, and toll Texas State Highway 121. The proposal passed by a 5-1 vote.
Maher Maso said he wasn’t concerned about the fact he was the only council member in the four-city consortium of Frisco, Allen, McKinney, and Plano to vote against the resolution. A bad deal is a bad deal, he said. Collin County Commissioner Jerry Hoagland of Plano also voted against the plan Monday night in a special session.
“Toll roads have a time and a place,” Maso said in an e-mail Wednesday. “The DNT (Dallas North Tollway) is an example of a good toll road and NTTA is an example of a good organization. However, tolling as a tool for all future state highways is not a good long-term plan. Citizens have already paid a gas tax to build many of these roads. This is a prime example of double taxation.”
Under the NTTA plan, which was to be presented to the Regional Transportation Council, a 40-member board of North Texas appointees yesterday, the tollway authority would enter a 50-year partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) in which the NTTA would “develop, operate and maintain the project and provide to TxDOT all annual toll revenues” after its annual operating costs have been met, according to proposal’s executive summary. NTTA officials admit it goes against their own Prime Directive of investing revenue back in its own system, but the potential windfalls – between $500 million and $1 billion by some accounts – to be spent on Collin County road projects, is too favorable a scenario to deny, they said.
That doesn’t mean that all of the money sent to TxDOT will return to the region like the original resolution approved by the cities of Frisco, Plano, Allen, McKinney and the Collin County Commissioners Court intended. Some could be used for TxDOT projects elsewhere, a major sticking point for Maso.
“I cannot support any funds going from SH 121 to build other roadways,” Maso said. “That simply is not right. As many have said, it is Robin Hood all over again. We are collecting funds from a small portion of our residents to pay for the use of free roads by others. The potential toll charge, when converted to what it would translate to as a gas tax, could be as high as a $2 per gallon gas tax,” Maso said.
The NTTA plan would assess tolls at the same rate as on the DNT and the President George Bush Turnpike – currently 12 cents per mile – growing at 1.5 percent a year, and adjusted every five years. The NTTA would finance SH 121 as part of the DNT system, promising an opening date of 2010, including building interchanges at the DNT in Frisco and at US Highway 75 (Central Expressway) in McKinney. TxDOT district engineers said the construction of the highway’s six main lanes (three northbound and three southbound) wouldn’t begin until 2007 after all environmental impact approvals are secured. Construction of the highway’s three-lane frontage roads is already under way, and some sections have already opened. The construction of the main lanes and frontage roads from the DNT to Hillcrest Road in Frisco has already been paid for by the state’s gasoline tax.
“[That] is currently funded with $86 million and is already under construction to be completed by 2008 even without doing anything,” Maso said.
The NTTA said it would build SH 121 for $370 million, and, along with other projects like the Lewisville Lake Bridge, Trinity Parkway, Southwest Parkway, and the eastern extension of the Bush Turnpike, pour $4.5 billion into North Texas Transportation projects, relieving cash-strapped TxDOT of those financial burdens. The NTTA’s plan would be more fiscally attractive to the state than private companies’ offers the state is considering under a comprehensive development agreement, or CDA. Foreign and domestic firms have entered bids on the project, which due to the nature of the bids the state is not obliged to divulge. A CDA could provide the state with more money up front while the NTTA plan would spread payments over 50 years.
Maso argued that tolling what is now a free SH 121 would have a bigger cost than benefit to area drivers, and he presented calculations to his council colleagues to illustrate his point.
“A policy that dictates tolls on state highways is highly unfair and inequitable,” he said. “A 30-mile (round) trip, at 12.5
cents a mile, five days-a-week translates to $975 per year. If you drive a car that gets 15 miles-per-gallon the same distance on a free road and increase the gas tax 10 cents a gallon, your increased taxes for a year are $52. If your car gets 20 miles-per-gallon, that increased cost is $39 per year. That is a major difference. That $975 translates to a $1.88 per-gallon gas tax at 15 miles-per-gallon or $2.50 per gallon tax at 20 miles-per-gallon.”
According to the NTTA proposal, the cost of a round trip between the DNT in Frisco and Central Expressway in McKinney – 25.6 miles – would cost $1.34 when the highway opens in 2010. If predictions for annual increases hold true, that cost could rise to $1.44 by 2015; $1.56 by 2020; $1.68 by 2025; $1.81 in 2030; $1.95 in 2035; and up to $2.11 in 2040, the end of the 50-year deal with TxDOT.
Tolls on SH 121 would be collected through toll tags exclusively – another point of contention for Maso.
“This creates a problem for those that do not have a credit card or out-of-state visitors,” he said. “Another major problem that I had with tolling is the length of time. The tolls will not be reduced or removed after the bonds are paid off. In fact, there are escalation costs built into the agreement. This is not a 20- or 30-year agreement, but 50-plus years! Along with that, some right-of-way has been donated by landowners who were told it was going for a freeway. They were never asked to donate for a tollway and some do not support it. Along with that, major industrial users will not want to locate near a tollway for obvious reasons.”
Maso’s colleagues on the dais had more favorable opinions, mostly arrived at through attrition and weariness over wrangling with different scenarios and mostly summed up by City Manager George Purefoy – the author of the resolution agreed upon by the four cities and the county months ago: make a good deal.
“I’ve expended all the energy I can on this,” Purefoy said. “All in all this is the best solution. It is a classic compromise. Nobody gets everything they want but everybody gets a little bit of what they want. It comes down to making the best deal you
“We have been working on this since 2004,” Mayor Mike Simpson said. “The right thing to do is get the road done and get it done by 2010. If TxDOT is willing to look at a CDA and get a foreign entity to do this, they certainly should look at the NTTA. We all need to be able to go to the state with a united front and present this to them as a viable alternative.”
“We appreciate the confidence you have shown in us,” NTTA Executive Director Alan Rutter told the council before their vote. “Plano, Allen, and McKinney have all voted unanimously in favor of (our proposal). The Collin County Commissioners Court voted four-to-one for it. We look forward to working with the City of Frisco as well.”
Maso did not let his chosen role as a naysayer overshadow the acknowledgement of a hard journey leading up to Tuesday night’s council vote.
“I am awed by how hard the local elected officials tried to come up with a solution that attempts to protect our local citizens,” Maso said. “There is no blame that can be placed on them, especially not Mayor Mike Simpson or City Manager George Purefoy who pulled out all the stops to protect our residents.”