Between existing toll roads and a $600 million commitment in a Nov. 6 bond election, Collin County residents are well-invested in their highways.
So invested, in fact, that their top elected official, County Judge Keith Self, says they’re tired of paying as they go.
“We’ve got the highest concentration of toll roads anywhere in the state,” Self said. “We’ve got people spending a lot of money to get places. We’re not trying to get more toll lanes, we’re trying to figure out how to build more freeways like everyone else has.”In their transportation bond presentations this fall, county leaders showed maps comparing Collin’s limited-access highways to those of 1960s Dallas County, when it hit the 900,000-plus population threshold where Collin County sits today.
Dallas in the 1960s had interstates 20, 30 and 35 and Central Expressway as a new north-south freeway, and it was completing the Interstate 635 connector loop.
By the 1970s, Central had reached most of Collin. But today, some 50 years later, it remains the county’s only free limited-access highway. The others — Dallas North Tollway, Bush Turnpike and Sam Rayburn Tollway — are full-on toll roads. And there are no limited-access roadways on the eastern half of the county, which is one of the nation’s fastest-growing.
The comparison is not just of Dallas and Collin maps, but of government’s shift in philosophy over the decades in its funding of roads and the increasing cost of transportation infrastructure.
“The state transportation budget has gone down from 33 percent of the state budget. It dipped as low as 7 percent,” Self said. “That’s a statement.”
However, as he nears the end of his 12-year run as county judge in January, Self is also critical of the process — saying that Dallas and Tarrant counties get the bulk of the attention, and most available dollars through the Regional Transportation Commission.
The RTC is a metropolitan planning organization, assigned by federal law to allocate federal and state transportation dollars in the 12-county region. Its members are locally elected officials with seats divided according to population. Collin’s five seats among 44 doesn’t seem much to leaders of a county with a population of 900,000.
“We have to be on the radar,” McKinney City Council member Chuck Branch said in criticizing the RTC at a recent work session to discuss U.S. Highway 380. “We don’t really have a leg to stand on when it comes to representation.”
The RTC operates in conjunction with the North Central Texas Council of Governments. The council of governments’ executive board, of which Self is a member, has no authority to override RTC decisions. It answers to the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin.
“We have a regional legislature known as the RTC that has no oversight,” Self said. “The process is broken because the metropolitan planning organization carries too much authority. The state has got to claw back.”
That’s exactly what happened, he said, when the RTC recommended that the LBJ East project be built with new tolled lanes through Lake Highlands, Garland and Mesquite. Through three legislative sessions, then two trips to Austin for Texas Transportation Commission votes, those who didn’t want new toll roads pushed back. Today, the approved plan for LBJ East includes no new toll lanes.
Michael Morris, transportation director for the council of governments and staff liaison to the RTC, also cited LBJ East as a recent example of how state oversight worked to hone the process.
“There is nothing the RTC can do that the Texas Transportation Commission does not endorse,” Morris said. On LBJ East, he said, the state commissioners stepped in to underline the sensitivities state leaders are showing regarding tolled roadways.
The process for LBJ East — a $1.8 billion project — was seen as a model for how Texas mega-projects would be funded in the future. And Collin County has freeway needs that are even bigger projects. County leaders are adamant that those projects, including Highway 380 and the Outer Loop, be built as freeways.
“Everybody is short of money,” Self said. “Government is, at its base, the allocation of scarce resources.”
Morris said he gets the message and, with the help of RTC members including Duncan Webb, Self’s colleague on the county commission, says significant dollars are set aside for Collin’s next builds.
RTC allocates money based on congestion. Its formula indicates that Collin County accounts for 20 percent of the area’s congestion. That translates to $900 million in federal and state dollars set aside in 2016 for the county’s future.
“The partnership we have with the state gives us 10 percent additional for right of way and 10 percent for engineering,” Morris said. “With the Collin County bond, they’re sitting on $1.5 to $2 billion. I personally know of no other place in the nation where there is $2 billion waiting for non-tolled projects than Collin County.”
Morris said that once cities reach a consensus on the route for Highway 380, it will be inserted into the Mobility 2045 plan and officially become a regional priority.
“It’s unfortunate that 50 years ago, 380 wasn’t built as a freeway,” he said. “It would have been hard back then for people to have forecast the growth, but the spacing indicates that somewhere right where 380 is today needs to be a freeway facility.”
By Ray Leszcynski, Communities | Source article