Wednesday, July 14, 2004

CTRMA Will Set Toll Rates

Reality of tolls will hit in 2005

First tollway expected in March

many likely to be all-electronic

July 14, 2004

Ben Wear,
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

Central Texas drivers should pay their first toll charges next spring. Just don't expect to see any tollbooths.

Transportation officials Tuesday, fresh off a critical vote authorizing them to build 64 miles of toll roads in and around Austin (in addition to the 65 miles already under construction), said work on the 1.45-mile stretch of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) near William Cannon Drive should be done by around March.

At that point, drivers who chose to stay on the four expressway lanes rather than face a stoplight on the frontage roads would have to pay.

Work on a second phase of the project, building two connecting bridges from MoPac to U.S. 290 West at a cost of about $30 million, will commence after the section becomes a tollway.

The exact charge will be set in the next few months by the appointed board of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which will assume control after the state Department of Transportation completes the overpass over William Cannon. But Bob Daigh, the Austin district engineer for the Transportation Department, said a toll of 50 cents to 75 cents has been the rate in preliminary discussions.

"All of the toll rates that we have looked at so far have been for planning," Daigh said. "The CTRMA, in concert with the public meetings that they'll host and the advice that they'll receive from their financial advisers, will set the toll rates."

A 50-cent rate for that short stretch of road would amount to about 34 cents a mile, well above the 12 cents to 15 cents a mile Daigh and other officials have said drivers can expect to pay initially for the 11 toll roads Central Texas will see by the end of the decade.

Daigh, again emphasizing that the rates are preliminary, said that rates will vary from road to
road and that a systemwide average of 18 cents a mile or less is now the target.

Daigh and Richard Ridings, the engineering consultant for the mobility authority, said the intention for most if not all of the roads is to have no tollbooths.

Instead, the toll lanes would be emblazoned with signs alerting drivers that they should enter the toll lanes only if they have an electronic toll tag. Anyone driving on a toll road without a tag would be committing a violation under state law.

Electronic toll tags, in use in Houston and Dallas and widely across the country, typically are attached to the rearview mirror or windshield and communicate with receivers suspended on sign gantries above the roads.

When a driver passes under one at normal speed, either on the main lanes of the highway or at an exit ramp, a toll account is charged a set amount. Drivers typically have to prepay a certain amount, either with a credit card or by check, and each trip under a gantry debits that account.

Going to a 100 percent electronic system is cutting-edge. Almost all systems have a combination, allowing those with toll tags to breeze through and providing cash stations for everyone else.

Daigh and Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association in Washington, D.C., said that only the Toronto system and the most recent toll road in Houston are all-electronic. Gray said many toll authorities are thinking of going this direction. The problem, of course, is what to do about folks with no

"There's always the issue of what do you do with the poor, lost tourists," Gray said.

In Houston, where the Harris County Toll Road Authority opened the Westpark Tollway on May 1, what they do with those tourists and other scofflaws is take a picture of the back of their car to get the license plate number. Then, after a particular license plate transgresses for a third time, the toll authority sends the person registered with that plate a bill for the unpaid tolls, plus $5 per violation for administrative costs.

In Central Texas, the mobility authority ultimately will be the operator of up to eight toll roads (the state Transportation Department, already at work on at least three other roads, likely will handle the construction of most of them, Daigh said). Aside from setting toll rates, the authority board will have to decide whether to go all-electronic on some or all of those roads.

And assuming the board takes the no-booth approach, directors in the coming months will also have to decide whether to adopt the Houston model, look the other way entirely or find some kind of middle ground.

© 2004 Austin American-Statesman: