Denton officials balk at carrying load for I-35

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I-35E project funding in doubt

State funds aren’t available; county rethinking its path

01:20 AM CST on Saturday, November 12, 2011

By Bj Lewis / Staff Writer

Denton County officials find themselves at odds with Texas Department of Transportation on how to fund the expansion of Interstate 35E between Carrollton and Denton.

In Thursday’s inaugural meeting of the 1420 Committee, officials dove into some of the logistical and financial difficulties ahead as they work to get the expansion project moving forward, and county officials are not happy with the current scenario.

That committee is a requirement of the Senate Bill 1420, which authorizes the use of public-private partnerships to fund the expansion of I-35E.

The current highway consists of four to six regular lanes and four lanes of frontage roads.

The new project would expand the highway to eight regular lanes, four tolled HOV lanes and four to six frontage lanes, depending on the need. The current estimated cost is $3.3 billion in construction, $1.2 billion to purchase right of way and $800 million for operations.
But state funding is not available now, so if the project moves forward, Denton County will have to pay.

That has transportation officials rethinking how to proceed.

During the presentation, TxDOT offered several scenarios to move forward with what they could fund on the project from Denton County’s available $600 million. All of them involved managed toll lanes, but not adding any free general-purpose lanes, which drew the ire of County Commissioner Hugh Coleman.

“I was surprised that Michael Morris and the [North Central Texas Council of Governments] were proposing to take our $600 million and only build a sole toll lane,” Coleman said. “It was my belief when this was presented to various cities, if I-35E was to have managed lanes, it would also result in having general-purpose lanes at the same time.”

Coleman said it was disingenuous to make that representation and get support for the legislation to get tolling on I-35E and then say they can’t do it.

“This is the first time I have heard there is not enough money to get done what they proposed,” he said. “Frankly, I think we need to reset the situation and reassess how we will get this done moving forward.”

Coleman also questions why at this point only Denton County funds are being bandied about for the expansion project.

Andy Eads complimented the workgroup from TxDOT for the work over the last few months to better define the cost estimates, where to start and what the time frame should be.

“What we want at the county is for the state to contribute to this project, I think, that is my No. 1 message,” Eads said. “Denton County should not be the largest stakeholder in building this large project.”

Eads said that some of the project proposals made at the meeting were unacceptable and that it would take more participants at the table willing to write checks to get it done.

Denton County transportation consultant John Polster noted that both TxDOT and the Metropolitan Planning Organization had money to put into Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway, the North Tarrant Express and the DFW Connector and that TxDOT had $350 million to put into Grand Parkway in Houston during the time they were telling the county they had no funds at all for I-35E.

“There a real possibility if we can’t get TxDOT and the MPO to participate, Denton County may decide that no build is better than wasting our $600 million,” Polster said.

The committee’s next meetings will be at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 22 and 10:30 a.m. Nov. 30 at the headquarters of the Denton County Transportation Authority, 1660 S. I-35E, Suite 250, in Lewisville.

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