Without toll roads, motorists would pay a deeper price, according to area transportation officials seeking public support for the controversial roadways.
“The one thing you need to fully understand is we will be judged by the diversity of our transportation investment,” said Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
Speaking April 6 at the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition’s monthly meeting in Fort Worth, Morris described toll roads as a vital component in managing growing numbers of motorists. By helping fund toll roads, Morris said motorists enjoy better roads and those able to accommodate more traffic, minimizing the time commuters spend on those roadways.
Morris also described the oft-criticized freeway alternative as helping fund transportation infrastructure improvements.
Since the Texas Legislature gave transportation officials the green light in considering toll roads as an option, the public sector has leveraged $2.9 billion and benefited by more than $22 billion committed by the private sector, Morris pointed out. That includes funding for initial construction costs, future improvements, maintenance costs, concession payments and revenue sharing, according to NCTCOG.
After the state’s Regional Toll Revenue funding initiative was approved in 2007, following the North Texas Tollway Authority agreeing to build and maintain State Highway 121, motorists have reaped the rewards.
Between 2009 and 2015, area roadways have received $3 billion, or 83 percent, in funding from the regional funding initiative; with air quality receiving $325 million, or 9 percent; passenger rail, $278 million, or 7 percent; and maintenance, $34 million, or 1 percent.
“We have 7 million [motorists] and we have a responsibility to look out for the 10.4 million that are within this time frame,” said Morris, referring to Mobility 2040, the long-range transportation plan outlining $118.9 billion expected to be spent on transportation projects between now and 2040.
As the metropolitan planning agency for the Dallas-Fort Worth area, NCTCOG is required to maintain a long-term transportation plan. That vision must define a blueprint for the region’s multi-modal transportation system and guide expenditures of local, state and federal transportation funds.
As projects listed in the long-term plan move closer to implementation, they are added to the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), a listing of funded transportation projects through 2018. Included in the listing are projects with confirmed local, state and federal funding.
Continuing to fund freeways, passenger rail lines, local bus service and other modes of transportation is vital, with toll roads – and managed lanes – among tools favored by those speaking at the meeting.
“I think what gets lost in this who discussion is the idea of managed lanes and what they can do to help us manage traffic,” said Brian Barth, Fort Worth district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation.
Unlike toll roads, in which all lanes require a usage fee, managed lanes are tolled lanes on otherwise non-tolled freeways. Simply adding more non-tolled lanes to existing freeways is not a realistic way to accommodate growing freeway traffic, Barth said.
“There’s no way we could go as wide as we need because you’d wipe out big commercial developments and big residential areas,” Barth said.
Continuing to reap revenue from toll roads and managed lanes is vital since traditional funding sources remain flat. For instance, the state’s gas tax of 20 cents per gallon is lower than the national average of $0.304 per gallon. And state fuel taxes were last raised in 1991, with federal fuel taxes last increased in 1993.
Officials acknowledge the challenge of winning over a public wary of toll roads and managed lanes. Morris said it’s up to he and other officials in pointing out the benefits of using public dollars in funding transportation improvement.
“Trucks can pay a little toll and are able to add another appointment,” said Robert Hinkle, spokesman with NTE Mobility Partners LLC, pointing out that workers otherwise stuck in traffic can enjoy more time to earn money when free to add that time to their work day.
“Another thing is when discussing tolls, some people talk about costs, but why aren’t you including benefits? Workers aren’t losing jobs [while stuck in traffic], not missing flights. It’s not a coincidence that these are built between here and DFW International Airport,” Hinkle said.
Merely maintaining existing roads is expensive, said Barth, and funding has to come from somewhere.
“It’s not an insignificant amount to keep these projects open and maintained,” said Barth, referring to the DFW Connector and North Tarrant Express, among other projects.
A Fort Worth councilman agreed.
“There is a need for transportation,” said District 6 Councilman Jungus Jordan. “Our future message is going to be if you allow us to continue using these effective tools in our toolbox, we can stretch the dollar of the taxpayer a lot further to improve our transportation.”