LBJ East funding shortfall could spread the pain to Denton, Kaufman and Rockwall counties
Dallas Morning News
ARLINGTON — The sacrifice for a $1.8 billion freeway project in Dallas County spread into Denton, Kaufman and Rockwall counties when a new plan unveiled Thursday showed highway connections to those places may have to wait in order to fund LBJ East.
Three projects were identified as collateral to come up with the money to improve 10.8 miles of Interstate 635 in Lake Highlands, Garland and Mesquite — known as LBJ East and widely accepted as the region's No. 1 transportation need.
Projects that could be potentially delayed are a $128 million fix of the Interstate 30 bridge over Lake Ray Hubbard; $262 million in work on Interstate 35E between LBJ and the Denton County line; and $263 million earmarked for U.S. Highway 80 east of Town East Boulevard on toward Forney in Kaufman County.
Leaders of those counties expressed frustration that projects affecting their communities might be held back.
"I don't like the idea of money already dedicated to help my county being used as collateral," said Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood, who also spoke to the Regional Transportation Council as the move was announced. Wood also fired off an angry letter to Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Between Fort Worth and Little Rock, Ark., there's not a bigger bottleneck on I-30 than over the Lake Ray Hubbard bridge," Rockwall County Commissioner David Magness said.
'It's time to govern'
Denton County Judge Mary Horn sent a three-page letter to the governor. She sent a separate letter addressed to Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and her county's legislative delegation. She, like Wood and Magness, supports two tolled, managed lanes in each direction as the way to finance LBJ East, and she called on the officials to use that method of funding to build 635.
"It's time to govern," Horn wrote.
The tolled lanes were the region's plan for LBJ East until November, when state commissioners axed the tolling option at the request of the governor and lieutenant governor.
But when the regional leaders scrapped the plan and agreed to build without tolls, the Texas Transportation Commission erred in not following through to approve the January agenda item, retiring state commissioner Victor Vandergriff told the regional council Thursday.
"There was a trust because there was truthful discussion," Vandergriff said. "It should have been approved. It should have been done. And I apologize for that."
'A risky strategy'
In passing on a chance to green flag LBJ East for bids last month, state commissioners pressed for the list of what wouldn't get done if the region's funds were concentrated on the project in northeast Dallas County.
It will be at least March before LBJ East gets another chance in Austin. Meanwhile, at Thursday's meeting here, the Regional Transportation Council agreed on what it and the state commissioners are calling a "clear path forward" to finance LBJ East.
When asked for specifics by TTC Chairman J. Bruce Bugg in Austin last month, Michael Morris, regional transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, declined to name specific collateral projects.
Bugg reached back to the regional council in a Jan. 31 letter, reiterating his desire to get LBJ East done, but not backing off the need for a full explanation of where the money would come from.
"This is a risky strategy that we're using, but we have instructions from the chairman to close the gap," Morris told regional council members Thursday.
In retrospect, Morris said, identifying $653 million through the three potentially impacted projects adds to the transparency of the $1.8 billion mega-project.
'This is a blood-letting'
Bugg's letter and the RTC meeting also recognized the growing resident participation in the freeway debate. Dallas Council member Adam McGough said 50,000 are now connected to the Twitter feed @LBJ_Now.
"They are getting louder and more cantankerous," McGough told the RTC. "I think it's important that people realize when they play this kind of game, they put other projects at risk."
Morris called the I-30, I-35E and U.S. Highway 80 projects collateral. Others called it defunding — or worse.
"I realize for the council, (Mesquite) Mayor (Stan) Pickett, for Rowlett, for Rockwall, for Kaufman County and Denton County, this is a blood-letting," Garland Mayor Douglas Athas said.
Morris didn't directly answer a question about how long the other projects could be delayed, saying instead he held hope they wouldn't be delayed at all. He believes, instead, that there are potential hundreds of millions to be saved by lower bids or should the state utilize discretionary funding.
There could also be a change in road-building philosophy by the time the two express lanes are built, at which point the similarity in design could shift the project back to tolled, managed lanes.
"There is nothing more free market than giving citizens a choice to take a tolled managed lane or a tax-supported main lane," Horn wrote. "You are taking away the liberty of North Texas citizens and forcing them to sit in traffic."
In his letter, Wood blasted his own state senator, Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), for taking the lead in the state's no more toll roads debate — the fight that engulfed LBJ East, which is also within Sen. Hall's district.
"Those who traffic in political gamesmanship and peddle misinformation on tolled managed lane facilities are hurting their residents and wasting taxpayers' dollars," Wood wrote. "There is no formidable opposition to tolled managed lanes in North Texas. We've seen them work."