DALLAS — North Texas transportation officials are pressing to meet today’s deadline on a decision to build State Highway 161 near the western edge of Dallas County as a toll road and not a freeway. Last month, Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, set today as the deadline for TxDOT engineers to reach an agreement with the North Texas Tollway Authority over how to value the project as a tollway.Lara Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which as helped facilitate the negotiations, said a sticking point regards what data is being used in travel models to gauge the market value of the nearly 11-mile stretch. “Right now they’re discussing what data is going to be used for the study,” she said. “They have pretty sophisticated travel models that are used to figure out the volume of cars that may use the road, and the debate is about what data goes in because the model only spits out analysis of the information that goes in.” Construction has already begun on SH 161, which runs north and south connecting Interstate 20 in Grand Prairie with SH 183 in Irving just south of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Eventually, the road will connect with the Bush Turnpike, which arcs across the suburbs north of Dallas.Without tolling, complete construction of SH 161 won’t be completed until 2016, according to the TxDOT Web site. “With tolling, the construction of the SH 161 main lanes could begin much earlier and all sections could be opened to traffic by 2010. In addition, the the funding would be used to support [other] projects in the area,” according to TxDOT.The agency also claims many parts of the Lone Star state are “faced with a critical funding shortage for transportation improvements.”Other officials involved in the decision expect parts of the road to be open in 2009 with full access to the entire highway in 2011. “The project is under construction now and people are going to be using it soon,” Rodriguez said. “But one downfall of it not being a toll road is the question of what happens to that excess revenue that would be generated from the road.”“As we just saw with the 121 agreement, which is set to bring $3 billion to North Texas for much, much-needed transportation projects, the 161 project, while on a smaller scale, could do the same thing and bring additional revenue to the region for various projects,” she said.TxDOT said that “by leveraging the $400 million capital investment in the 161 corridor, it’s possible to develop a total program of over $800 million worth of needed construction.” Earlier this year, the NTTA won a concession to build the 24-mile SH 121 as a toll road with a $3.3 billion upfront payment, wrestling the project away from Spanish firm Cintra after bidding was reopened at the request Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. Funds from that payment are expected to finance numerous projects across the DFW metroplex and may be used to complete SH 161 as a freeway if it isn’t a toll road. The freeway option would take money away from other projects.“If it’s not a toll road, we could be further down in the hole and unable to address many needed projects,” Rodriguez said.
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