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Bill Targets Toll Road's Power to Take Land

Only one private company in the state has the power to condemn and take land for a toll road. Following public backlash over its proposed road near Dallas, state Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, wants to take that power away.

Traffic on I-30 on the eastern side of Lake Ray Hubbard in Rockwall on June 6. A proposed private tollway to relieve traffic in the area appears to be dead.

A year ago, the Texas Turnpike Corporation was optimistic about its plans to build the state’s only private toll road northeast of Dallas.

But following several months of public backlash, the project appears all but dead, and the Legislature is being asked to drive the final nail into its coffin.

State Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, has filed a bill to strip the Texas Turnpike Corporation of its power of eminent domain so it would no longer have the authority to condemn and take land. Burkett said House Bill 565 was sparked by “the grassroots uproar” that developed in her district last year surrounding the company’s plans.

While a lawmaker filing a bill targeting one company may seem unusual, the Texas Turnpike Corporation is an unusual company. In 1991, state lawmakers decided to repeal a law that allowed private toll road companies and gave them eminent domain powers. One day before the law changed, the Texas Turnpike Corporation was incorporated, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

“They’re the only private company that is currently able to do this kind of turnpike because they fall under grandfathered rights,” Burkett said. She said staff research found no other company that would be impacted by her bill.

Private toll roads are relatively rare in America. In most toll projects, a local or state entity retains ownership of the land. The last private toll road in Texas was the Camino Colombia Toll Road in South Texas, which the state purchased in 2004 after the private firm that built it declared bankruptcy.

Texas has partnered with the private sector for multiple toll projects in recent years. The southern portion of State Highway 130 in Austin drew national attention in 2012 for sporting the country’s fastest speed limit at 85 mph. A private consortium built the road and agreed to operate it for 50 years in exchange for a cut of the toll revenue, but does not own the land.

For most of its existence, the Texas Turnpike Corporation has been searching for a viable project to develop. The company eventually focused on the so-called Blacklands Corridor outside of Dallas, with hopes of creating an alternative to nearby Interstate 30. The company later renamed the project the Northeast Gateway.

“This facility is a reliever to 30 and a time saver,” Neal Barker, a spokesman for the corporation, said last year.

As word of the proposal spread last year, opposition grew. In September, the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which coordinates transportation planning for the region, held a public meeting in Rockwall to discuss long-term transportation options including the private toll road. More than 1,200 people attended, with the vast majority opposed to the toll road. Allegations by opponents that the council’s forecasts of population growth were inflated to make the toll project seem more viable further inflamed opposition, though the council stood by the numbers.

The council eventually reversed a recommendation to include the road in the region’s long-term transportation plan.

“There was no justifiable transportation need … and it was a private company trying to take private land,” said Christopher Kurinec, a Hunt County resident who opposed the plan. “I think those things combined really undid it.”

The turnpike corporation is not currently developing the project, Barker said.

“It’s nowhere,” Barker said. “We’re not doing anything. We haven’t done anything since November.”

Burkett said she intends to prevent the company from using its eminent domain authority in the future to build the toll road, expressing concerns about a lack of oversight and public input.

“Particularly in the taking of property for roads, it’s so much land,” Burkett said. “I want to be sure that that process is being followed properly in terms of communicating with the public.”

Barker said he was aware that legislation related to his toll project would be proposed this session. Asked if the company would lobby against measures like Burkett’s bill, he said, “I don’t think we’ll be involved in that at all.”

Disclosure: The Texas Turnpike Corporation was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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