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SH 121 may become toll road
Change could reduce congestion near Plano, officials say

By Wendy Hundley / The Dallas Morning News
March 9, 2001

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Collin County and Plano city officials are considering making State Highway 121 a toll road between the Dallas North Tollway and North Central Expressway, but a decision is still two years away. The option would place toll roads on three sides of Plano, but officials say it could ease traffic congestion by speeding up improvements to busy Highway 121 on Plano's northern edge.

"The real question is: 'When can we get it built and how much will it cost us?' " said Collin County Judge Ron Harris, who has been updating area city councils on the status of long-range plans to turn Highway 121 into an expressway. "Traffic [on the highway] is growing 10 to 15 percent a year."

With the President George Bush Turnpike on the south and the Dallas North Tollway on the west, Plano Mayor Jeran Akers said he isn't thrilled with the prospect of having another toll road. "I don't like it, but I like the alternative even less, sitting here with smog, congestion and road rage," he said. "The most important thing is that it be completed, and completed as soon as possible." The McKinney City Council adopted a resolution Tuesday in support of building the highway's main lanes as a toll road if funding for a tax-supported freeway isn't feasible in the near future.

McKinney officials consider the expansion project crucial to the city's transportation needs and a key element of the Regional Mobility 2025 plan. Transportation officials have included the Highway 121 project in a list of several dozen planned road expansions that are awaiting funding. The list of backlogged projects reaches almost $1 billion in North Texas alone.

According to the list, $81 million will be needed to build six main lanes on Highway 121 from the Denton County line to Central Expressway. State officials pointed to the backlog this week as they argued for legislation to allow the state to issue bonds to finance some road projects. A bill introduced by state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, could generate $1 billion to $1.5 billion for projects statewide. Gov. Rick Perry was in Dallas on Monday to announce his support for some type of road bond program to get projects like Highway 121 moving again.

Long-range plans for the once sleepy roadway would turn it into an expressway from Central to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The Texas Department of Transportation plans to open bids in October 2002 to build service roads for the 12-mile stretch from the Dallas North Tollway to Central. Construction could begin in early 2003 and would take about three years, said Charles Tucker, director of transportation planning and development for the Transportation Department's Dallas district.

The cost to build the service roads is estimated at $46.3 million, Mr. Tucker said, with $34.3 million more needed for two three-level interchanges to be built along the route. The projects would be built with federal, state and local funding. But no money has been earmarked for building the main lanes, Mr. Tucker said. That's why the toll road option is being explored.

The toll road approach could make money available sooner and accelerate the construction process if traffic studies demonstrated that toll revenues would be sufficient to repay bonds issued to finance construction. In 1999, Collin County, Allen, Frisco, McKinney and Plano officials asked the North Texas Tollway Authority to study the feasibility of a tollway along that stretch of road. The project would cost more than $200 million but serve 66,000 vehicles a day and generate $12.2 million annually in tolls, according to the tollway authority's study, which was released early last year.

Projected funding contributions from the tollway authority and the Transportation Department would still leave a $95 million shortfall. "The county and the four cities have been meeting for several months to restructure the project and narrow the gap," said Jerry Hiebert, executive director of the North Texas Tollway Authority. Cost-cutting measures, such as trimming the project from six to four lanes, would still leave a $30 million to $50 million funding gap, Mr. Hiebert said.

Meanwhile, Denton County is considering alternative financing to get a Highway 121 bypass built five years ahead of schedule.

The nearly 17-mile, six-lane bypass, from the Denton-Collin county line to D/FW Airport, could begin next year if a plan is approved to fund the project through a loan from the State Infrastructure Bank and from cities along the route. Denton County officials never requested a toll road feasibility study, Mr. Hiebert said. If the toll road comes to pass, Mr. Tucker said he doesn't see a problem with motorists traveling along Highway 121 having a free ride in Denton County but paying tolls in Collin County. "I think that happens all over the United States," he said.

Staff writer Tony Hartzel contributed to this report.

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