A. Lee Graham firstname.lastname@example.org
North Tarrant Express is ahead of schedule, with the $2.2 billion freeway improvement project 88 percent complete and expected to wrap up by year’s end. “We’re at least six months ahead of schedule,” said Heather DeLapp, regional public relations manager with the project. Speaking at the 35W Coalition’s Wednesday April 16 quarterly membership meeting at Texas Motor Speedway, DeLapp assured elected officials and area executives that progress continues to be made on the planned widening of North Loop 820 and Texas 121-183. The project is split into west and east segments, with the western portion between I-35W and Texas 121 and the eastern portion between Texas 121 and the city of Euless. Since construction began in November 2009, motorists have grappled with traffic slowdowns, roadway re-routing and other headaches required for crews to bring architects’ plans to fruition. Offsetting such annoyances have been benefits, DeLapp said. According to civil engineers, the project has employed 2,100 workers from 160 local companies, spurred new economic development in the project corridor and prompted consumers to spent about $1.5 million a day in area businesses. While some businesses struggled as customers tried finding new routes to reach them, some new businesses actually opened and continue to prosper. Still, progress has not come easily. In March, the Fort Worth City Council debated a longtime city ordinance restricting new construction of billboards. It allows such off-premise signage if they already exist but prohibits replacing them if road improvements or other government projects require their removal. The council ultimately decided to grant an exception to the restriction to promote ongoing freeway construction. The decision came after the Texas Department of Transportation asked the city to allow reallocating such signage within the portion of North Tarrant Express between downtown and Loop 820. Specifically, TxDOT requested the city to grant an exception to the ordinance, allowing billboards in the affected area to be relocated in another portion of industrial-zoned land along the portion of the I-35W corridor in question. “Let’s design them for the corridor. Let’s make them aesthetically pleasing so that they match the corridor,” said Robert Hinkle, director of corporate affairs for NTE Mobility Partners. Asked at the meeting by former state Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, whether the ordinance boosted the project budget, and Hinkle said he did not know. “I’m not sure,” Hinkle responded in a question-and-answer session. “Its not money saved for putting billboards back in the corridor; it’s money we don’t spend in the right-of-way acquisition process,” Hinkle said. Project financing came via a $573 million investment from the Texas Department of Transportation, which was leveraged through $400 million in private activity bonds, $426 million in equity from NTE Mobility Partners and $650 million in loans through TIFEA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act), which in 1998 established a federal credit program for such transportation projects.