Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Dissension Is Taking Its Toll

There's been a lot of talk lately about the proposed toll roads in the Metroplex. One of them, the eastern extension of the President George Bush Turnpike, will run very close to my neighborhood. Another one, Highway 121 through Collin and Denton counties, doesn't usually affect me directly, but it definitely needs to be done; it outgrew its old incarnation as a two-lane farm road about a decade ago. The third one, Southwest Parkway in Ft. Worth, would probably be used even less by me, but I don't begrudge them a toll road at all. If only everyone shared those sentiments, the 121 project wouldn't be in such a snag right now.

The group who builds and maintains all of the current toll projects in our area, the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), recently announced a plan to use portions of tolls collected on Dallas and Collin County roads to build the Ft. Worth project, but officials over here don't like that idea: Dallas County commissioners raised the idea of pulling out of the NTTA, and Collin and Denton officials were toying with the idea of making sure that all the tolls collected on a future 121 toll road in their counties would stay in their counties:
Last month, the tollway authority board voted 4-3 to adopt its toll policy for Southwest Parkway and other projects. Representatives of Denton, Tarrant and Johnson counties supported the vote.

Representatives of Dallas and Collin counties unsuccessfully pushed for a policy that could set higher tolls for projects, such as Southwest Parkway, that don't initially generate as much revenue.

"The fuse has been lit," Paul Wageman, the Collin County representative of the tollway authority board, said at an agency retreat this week where board members spent an hour discussing last month's vote. "Our own actions have helped to create dissension." (source)
And there's also been a lot of griping from lots of people in the area about having to pay tolls at all. But let me throw in my two cent's worth (a small toll?) here:
  • We have to think regionally. It's just not very neighborly to worry about tolls on one road going towards the consruction of other roads in the system, so long as each road is well-maintained. It's not so much that roads in one county exist in a vacuum; does anyone around here really think about what county they live in, with the exception of paying property taxes or going to jury duty? You're not paying just to use that road; you're paying to use the system, and if the system does a good job of facilitating mobility throughout the area, then I'm happy to contribute.

  • We need to have a single toll-collecting authority. I never cared for the notion that the 121 toll road might be run by some private company that wasn't the NTTA, and I was really bothered by the notion of Dallas County creating its own separate authority. Why? In a word, TollTags. This little piece of plastic is one of the best inventions of the past two decades; being able to cruise through a tollbooth at a just-barely-reduced speed and getting your account automatically replenished by a credit card (instead of sitting in a long line, coming to a complete stop, and fishing for quarters, or tokens, or whatever) is the reason the system works as well as it does. Sure, I bet that multiple collection agents would eventually use the same piece of plastic, but you know there'd be a long lag before everything was configured to "talk" to each other (you can only imagine my frustration when I went to visit my parents in Houston before those two systems got integrated). And if they weren't, a lot of people's windshields would be covered with the stupid things, with each tag activating depending on whether the road you were currently driving was maintained by Tollway Authority A, B, or C. Aargh, what a mess that would be.

  • Toll roads are here to stay. Sure, we were used to all the highways being built with our gasoline taxes. But lately, the Legislature has been raiding the gas tax revenues on a regular basis to pay for other stuff. While we might eventually be able to elect people who won't do that anymore, I'm not holding my breath. The fact is, without tolls, a lot of the projects in this area wouldn't have even started to be built, including the George Bush, just a stone's throw from my house. Imagine how bad the mobility would be in this area if the Bush were still just access roads with stoplights. And also, without the Bush finished as far as it has been, Firewheel would still be nothing more than a lonely "Future home of AMC Theatres" sign on the prairie, and we'd still be driving to Plano (on the aforementioned service roads) for everything. Sure, I probably don't appreciate how much I actually pay in tolls, since the TollTag is charged to a card, but it's totally worth it to me to have roads done now instead of 25 years from now.

    Granted, if the subject turned to tolling existing roads (like, say, 35E from LBJ to Denton, which has been discussed before), I'd be singing a completely different tune. But that's another post for another time...
After all this, I was really happy to read an op-ed from the mayor of Frisco advocating having the NTTA build and maintain the future 121 tollway. As he pointed out, at least they'd have a local representative on the NTTA board, a luxury that they wouldn't have with a private company.

I'm sure there'll be more on this story as it develops.

We remember: A few days ago, we remembered the Challenger Seven; today, it's Columbia's turn. I actually saw the shuttle fly through the air as it came down and broke apart, though I had no idea what I was seeing at the time. A year later, having started The Musings, I blogged about it from the vantage point of one year earlier.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my fraternity brother James (no, not the Australian one; I don't think the Prawn dons Greek letters on a regular basis).


Kev said...

Heh, Gary, I knew you'd be the first one to comment on this one. But we have to agree to disagree on this one; as I said in the main post, it would be great if we could get the free roads we already paid for, but when the Lege raids the coffers and uses up that money for other, non-road-related stuff, we're kinda stuck...we either use tolls, or the roads don't get built for another quarter-century. If I were you, I'd save my ire for the buffoons in Austin rather than you're local elected officials; they're just doing the best they can in a bad situation.

Granted, anyone who doesn't want to use a tolled 121 can use the free service roads, which are still better than that old two-lane blacktop nightmare. But as for me, as I said, the thought of being in the boonies, still having to take those Bush service roads (or Campbell, Arapaho, Renner) to get anywhere just gives me the willies.

I still say you should be a blogger, Gary; I might not always agree with you, but I'd read you every day.

Kev said...

And wow, what a horrid typo; that would of course be your local elected officials. Man, I wish comments could be edited...

Kev said...

Oh, and you say Brazilian jiu jitsu? I bet that has a cool soundtrack... ;-)

Only time will tell, but I'm just having a hard time believing that a 121 tollway will kill Frisco. I take the DNT whenever I go to Stonebriar (except perhaps in evening rush hour) for one good reason: No stoplights, unlike Preston, which has like 257 of them between you and Plano.

And from where I sit (within rock-throwing distance of the new Firewheel Center), the George Bush has made Garland a more desirable place to live. Before the Bush, a lot of people thought that Garland was at the end of the universe; now, it's an actual part of the Metroplex again.

Besides, everyone up there in Frisco makes enough money that $40 here, $40 there on a TollTag account ain't gonna kill anyone. ;-)