The Texas Department of Transportation on Wednesday signed a 50-year deal with a Spanish company to add private, for-profit toll lanes along Interstate 35 north of downtown Fort Worth -- a stretch of highway considered the most congested in the state.
"This is a major step forward and a day to celebrate for those who drive that Interstate 35 corridor every day," said Texas Transportation Commissioner Bill Meadows, of Fort Worth. "People are tired of sitting in congestion, and we want to do something about it."
Construction on two toll lanes in each direction is set to begin next year and finish in 2018. They will be built next to the existing free lanes.
The deal is with NTE Mobility Partners Segments 3 LLC, which is a subsidiary of Cintra, a Spanish company that builds similar toll roads around the world, including several in North Texas.
Critics such as state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, say Texas is selling its future.
"I'm against toll roads," he said. "But I'm even more strongly against privately owned toll roads, and that's what we're confronting here. And frankly, the way it's being presented is, 'My way or the highway.'"
"We shouldn't be exporting our local transportation dollars to Spain," he said.
Supporters say it's a creative way to leverage the state's limited budget to solve the problem. The project will add $1.7 billion in infrastructure improvements, officials said.
"Bottom line is, we don't have the financial resources necessary to meet the kind of growth that we've had," Meadows said.
The deal will be reviewed by the Texas Legislative Budget Board and the Texas Attorney General's Office.
A public hearing on the plan is scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. at the transportation department's Fort Worth District Regional Training Center at 2501 Southwest Loop 820.