Victor Vandergriff: Why not every North Texas highway can be tolled

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Victor Vandergriff: Why not every North Texas highway can be tolled
By Nicholas Sakelaris
Staff Writer- Dallas Business Journal
August 14, 2014

Years ago, transportation planners made a decision that nearly all new highway capacity in North Texas would have a toll component, either tolled highways or managed lanes.

Looking back, Victor Vandergriff, Texas Transportation Commissioner, says he wondered at the time how people would react to that and how they would hold the decision-makers accountable for that once it came to fruition.

That time is now.

It's especially true in Collin County with the Sam Rayburn Tollway, the President George Bush Turnpike and the Dallas North Tollway.

"Every major thoroughfare that they have is going to be tolled," Vandergriff said as he spoke to several hundred people Thursday at the Greater Dallas Planning Council luncheon.

The exception is U.S. Highway 75, but even that could change as the Texas Department of Transportation discusses possibly converting the high-occupancy-vehicle lane into a managed toll lane, or TEXpress Lane.

"That's going to be where the irresistible force meets the immovable object," Vandergriff said.

Susan Fletcher, a Collin County Commissioner and Republican precinct chairwoman, has been outspoken about what she calls "toll fatigue" in her region.

"We support the legitimate construction of toll roads in Texas, but we oppose converting existing state and federal roads to toll roads including eminent domain right-of-ways acquisition without voter approval," Fletcher said.

The state has entered into public-private partnerships that include foreign companies such as Cintra, part of Ferrovial S.A., based in Madrid, for many of the major highway reconstructions. If these toll facilities fail to meet expectations, taxpayers have the majority of the risk. That's what some fear could happen to State Highway 130 near Austin.

These managed toll lanes are being all around North Texas, including the LBJ Express (Interstate 35E and Interstate 635 in North Dallas). The idea is to give drivers a choice: sit in traffic on the free lanes or pay a toll to get a guaranteed minimum speed of 50 mph. The toll varies based on traffic levels.

But the LBJ Express improvements stop at Greenville Avenue. Vandergriff said he's concerned about the potential logjam that could occur in Garland as drivers speed out of the TEXpress Lanes and hit the freeway traffic. The traffic could be worse than it was before in that area, he said.

And tolls aren't appropriate everywhere, he added.

“Affluent communities can afford the tolls and the private sector will support that. The less-affluent communities cannot," Vandergriff said. "We’re going to have that dynamic play out and that’s where you will see a challenge.”

A recent study estimated that North Texas roads cost drivers $1,700 a year in wasted time, fuel, repairs and accidents.

Vandergriff also talked about Proposition 1, the constitutional amendment that goes before voters Nov. 4. The latest estimates are that this would provide about $1.7 billion per fiscal year for transportation. It allocates a percentage of revenue from the state's oil and gas severance tax to Fund 6, which funds transportation projects. Previously, all that money went to the state's Rainy Day Fund.

"I think the signs point to that passing," Vandergriff said.

North Texas will get a "sizable obligation" out of that but added that it will be "spread through the whole state," he said.

As far as other revenue sources, Vandergriff said there have been discussions about allocating the motor vehicle sales tax to transportation. That will be a hot topic in the Texas Legislature in 2015, especially since lawmakers also have to address how to fund public education, Vandergriff said.