Monday, December 06, 2004

Toll Road Q & A

Toll roads: Let's take it from the top

December 6, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

I've heard it over and over from toll road advocates as the issue has boiled during the past few months: People would support this if they didn't have so many misconceptions about what it is and why we're doing it.

The unstated implication -- and implied criticism of the media -- is that the public has been misinformed, or underinformed, or both. First on that list is presumed public confusion about whether toll booths would be put on existing Central Texas highways under the plan approved this summer by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

No, no, no, say the toll road supporters. There are no conversions in the plan, dang it, just expansions of stoplighted roads (with tolls on the new and unobstructed main lanes), paired with free frontage roads that will be comparable to the current roads.

Well, I've written the facts many times and the Statesman has printed them. But in many articles I've used shorthand such as, "Many Central Texas highways would become toll roads." I admit that for the first-time or occasional reader, that language could lead one to believe that pure conversions, taking a free road and -- poof! -- making it a tollway, are coming.

But with no polls on the subject, it's impossible to know how many people have the facts wrong and oppose toll roads, and how many know the facts very well and still oppose them.

So, to try to clear up such confusion as exists, what follows is a clip-and-save-and-share-with-your-friends-and-random-strangers-on-the-street primer on toll roads. I hope it helps.

Q: How many toll roads will Central Texas have when this all settles out in a few years, say, by 2010?

A: The best guess is 11. But about half of those are unrelated to the controversial CAMPO plan, and the toll roads will come in several different flavors.

Q: Such as?

A: Five of them, for a total of 83 miles, will be totally new roads cut through the frontier, with frontage roads only near the entrances and exits. You might call these traditional toll roads.

The Texas Department of Transportation will operate four of them: Texas 130 (the eastern bypass around the metro area), Texas 45 Southeast (which will connect Texas 130 to Interstate 35), Texas 45 North (a north metro east-west throughway), and the Loop 1 extension (connecting MoPac Boulevard to Texas 45 North). The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority will operate the other: the U.S. 183-A loop around Cedar Park and Leander.

Construction on four of these roads has begun, and the other's start isn't far away. All are expected to be in operation by 2007. Creating these roads as turnpikes has caused little or no consternation in Central Texas, and even many committed critics of the other toll roads take care to say they don't oppose charging tolls on these roads.

One caveat, however: One of those roads, Texas 45 Southeast, will be built exclusively with gasoline tax dollars. That is, without borrowing money. So the tolls in this case will pay for maintenance and operations costs and, in the early years, for some of the costs on Texas 130, Texas 45 North and the Loop 1 extension. So Texas 45 Southeast is not so "traditional" after all.

Q: What other flavors?

A: This is the sticky part -- the roads in the CAMPO plan.

There were seven, but by January there will officially be just five after the CAMPO board, as expected, approves a deal canceling plans for tolls on a short section of MoPac at William Cannon Drive. Tolls on Loop 360 are in limbo, unlikely to occur for years, if ever.

That leaves five roads in the plan likely to be operated by the mobility authority. But even within that group, there are differences.

About 3.8 miles of U.S. 290 West and Texas 71 at and near the "Y" in Oak Hill will be built -- as with Texas 45 Southeast -- with gasoline tax dollars exclusively. So will 2.1 miles of Texas 71 east of I-35 (where construction began in 2002) and 2.3 miles of Ed Bluestein Boulevard east of I-35 (construction likewise began in 2002 there).

Even so, tolls will be charged on the main lanes in those stretches. Yes, the frontage roads will be free. But it is these decidedly nontraditional toll road stretches that continue to arouse opposition as "double taxation." Toll road supporters say, no, it's not double taxation because the toll road money, at least a part of it over time, will be used to pay for maintenance and for other new transportation projects elsewhere.

The other two roads in the plan, 5.7 miles of U.S. 290 East from Ed Bluestein to Texas 130, and the new 3.6-mile Texas 45 Southwest from MoPac to RM 1626, presumably would be built with a combination of borrowed money and gasoline tax dollars (the traditional mix) and would have free frontage roads. One would assume those two would be the least controversial, and that has been the case so far.

Q: That's only 10 roads. You said 11 . . .

A: The final road is MoPac from Town Lake north to where it will tie in with the Loop 1 extension tollway at Parmer Lane. The intention here is to add a lane on each side to the existing six-lane road, for a total of eight, and charge tolls on the two added lanes. Drivers with one or two passengers and buses might not have to pay tolls.

The existing six lanes would continue to be free. It's unclear what the nature of the funding for this expansion would be: gasoline taxes, borrowed money, or a combination.

Q: But why do we have to have toll roads at all?

A: That's a hugely complicated issue, one that the Statesman has allocated considerable real estate to in the past. In its broadest terms, toll road advocates say the problem is that the Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry won't raise the state gasoline tax from the current (and locked in place since 1991) 20 cents a gallon.

The current gas tax revenue (and federal funds, generated mostly by the federal gas tax) will allow building just 35 percent to 40 percent of the roads Texas needs over the next generation, they say. Charging tolls widely, they argue, will get those roads, or expansions of current roads, built much faster and supply the money to maintain them down the road.

Opponents say that is circular reasoning: I won't tax, so I have to toll. No, the opponents say, tax, so you don't have to toll. Increasing the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon would provide more than $1 billion a year in added revenue, increasing the state transportation budget more than 20 percent, and that would probably do the trick, they say. The Legislature, they maintain, is too cowardly to raise the gas tax and is using tolls as a stealth alternative.

So, there you have it. Let the discussion continue.

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