OCT 16, 2015

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

A year has passed since construction was completed on the North Tarrant Express project, the $2.5 billion makeover of Loop 820 and Texas 121/183 in Northeast Tarrant County.

Overall, many motorists say they are thrilled with the space they now have on the new main lanes, and modernized ramps and bridges. However, many motorists aren’t as happy about the cost of the toll lanes.

The toll lanes allow drivers to decide whether to stay on the free main lanes or pay up to 75 cents per mile — the precise rate varies minute by minute — to essentially buy their way out of congestion.

Stephanie Pitzer of Grapevine is among those who question why the toll prices are so high. She recently drove a portion of Texas 183 on North Tarrant Express and noticed the price to use the toll lanes was $3.20, compared to just 70 cents on Texas 114 “DFW Connector” toll lanes just a few miles to the north in Grapevine.

“I know (the price) changes (with) conditions but 183 is always more than double any other road, and I see all of them every day,” she said on her Twitter account.

North Tarrant Express officials say one of their goals is to maintain a minimum 50 mph speed limit on the toll lanes — the actual speed limit is 75 mph — so part of the strategy is to set the toll high enough that a manageable number of people use the lanes. In other words, the high price limits the number of vehicles.

Free use of toll lanes

To celebrate the one-year anniversary of the North Tarrant Express, motorists can sign up online to use the toll lanes — also called TEXpress lanes — for free through Oct. 25. (Hurry! The deadline to sign up is 11:59 p.m. Sunday.)

Drivers must have a TollTag, TxTag or EZ Tag account to take advantage of the free travel. The TEXpress website offers tips and Internet links to set up an account.

“It’s our way of thanking our existing customers for a great first full year of operation, as well as enticing new users to try out the managed lanes,” said Robert Hinkle, spokesman for NTE Mobility Partners, the firm that oversaw construction.

When the North Tarrant Express corridor opened in October 2014, road work was nine months ahead of schedule. Contractors have since moved on to rebuilding neighboring Interstate 35W, which is scheduled to be under construction through 2018 between I-30 near downtown Fort Worth and just north of the U.S. 287 “Decatur cutoff.”

Big boost in traffic volume

Since the North Tarrant Express re-opened its main lanes and introduced the toll lanes, traffic is generally about 23 percent higher than pre-construction levels, Hinkle said. That’s significant because portions of the corridor experience nearly 200,000 vehicles per day, according to traffic counts kept on file by the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Precise daily traffic counts for the toll lanes weren’t available. But since the lanes opened, more than 2.1 million unique vehicles have traveled on them, Hinkle said.

In one part of Loop 820, between U.S. 377 and Iron Horse Boulevard in North Richland Hills, 160,100 vehicles were counted during a typical work day in March, according to NTE Mobility Partners, which provided the traffic count at the Star-Telegram’s request. That’s 15 percent more than the 138,884 vehicles tallied in the same area in March 2009, according to historical traffic counts on file with the council of governments.

The 2015 figure includes traffic on both the main, non-toll lanes and the toll lanes. The 2009 measurement was taken before the toll lanes were built.

Although the difference amounts to a 15 percent increase, Hinkle said the increase in daily traffic volume is actually about 23 percent in other parts of the North Tarrant Express corridor. However, a more detailed analysis wasn’t available Friday.

52 years to collect tolls

North Tarrant Express was built under an agreement between the Texas Department of Transportation and its private development partners, NTE Mobility Partners.

The so-called comprehensive development agreement allowed the use of private equity, bonds, federal loans and other unusual revenue sources to pay for construction.

In return, NTE Mobility Partners is allowed to pocket a large amount of the toll revenue for 52 years.

Motorists received the promise of a clean, modern road for that entire half-century-plus. And there are provisions to add more toll-free lanes in roughly two decades, to further relieve traffic for those who don’t want to pay the tolls.

Also, Hinkle said, the main lanes have experienced an 80 percent reduction in congestion because of improved design and the loss of traffic to the toll lanes. That reduction amounts to a savings of $17.7 million for motorists, including the value of lost time and wasted fuel, he said.

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