Sunday, October 02, 2005

TxDOT and private concessionaires "shouldn't be in the business of profiting from existing roads."

Could part of I-35 be tolled?

October 02, 2005

By Matt Joyce
Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2005

Citing a shortage of highway funds, the Texas Department of Transportation is studying the option of charging tolls on two new lanes planned for construction on Interstate 35 through Central Texas.

Richard Skopik, the Waco District engineer, said the “toll viability” study is only a preliminary step in determining whether tolls – probably at a rate of 10 to 15 cents a mile – would help fund the construction and maintenance of a fifth and sixth lane from the south end of Bell County to Hillsboro.

While some local leaders are opposed to tolling new lanes on I-35, transportation officials say the idea merits consideration as part of a larger effort to build highways and relieve traffic congestion. State and federal gas taxes, which make up the bulk of highway funds, cover about a third of needed projects in the Waco area and across the state, according to the department.

“A lot of people are looking at the hard reality that if you can toll a project it's going to be a lot faster getting it on the ground than if you were to wait for gas taxes to get it built,” department spokeswoman Gaby Garcia said. “It makes sense to at least study the project for possible tolling. It doesn't mean you will do every one.”

The Waco district broke ground in 2000 on a 15-year, $1 billion project to expand 94 miles of Interstate 35 to six lanes as part of a transportation department initiative to improve I-35 throughout the state.

With only a fraction of the Waco area project complete, the Texas Transportation Commission in 2003 directed local districts to study the possibility of tolling new lanes on major highways or newly constructed major highways.

In the case of I-35, only the new lanes would be tolled while the existing lanes would remain free. And in areas that have already been expanded to six lanes, like the stretch through Waco, all six lanes would remain free, Skopik said.

Skopik said the I-35 toll study, which should be complete by the end of the year, attempts to determine whether projected traffic volumes would produce enough toll revenue to pay at least for the new lanes' maintenance and operation over 40 years. The department currently spends from $4 to $5 million annually on maintenance of the 120 miles of interstate highway it oversees in the Waco district, Skopik said.

If tolling appears viable in that respect, the department could then issue revenue bonds to generate up-front cash for the project. But that would not occur without consultation with local governments and transportation groups and another round of more detailed studies, Skopik said.

“The transportation commission has clearly stated that they don't want to impose tolling on any local communities that just cannot support it in some way, shape or form,” he said.

The I-35 project “will go on with or without tolling,” Skopik said. “Tolling would just possibly speed it up and further ensure that we get it done on time.”

A hard sell

The tolling argument hasn't won over local officials yet. The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization, a transportation planning group made up of area governments, voted last year to recommend maintaining six toll-free interstate lanes through McLennan County.

Russell Devorsky, chairman of the group's policy board and a member of the Bellmead City Council, said the department shouldn't be in the business of profiting from existing roads.

“When you have free public roadways that are already existing, I just don't believe in going back and tolling them, even the additional capacity,” Devorsky said. “I think we've already paid a public price through the eminent domain process” when the interstate highway was originally developed in the 1960s.

Christopher Evilia, executive director of the planning organization, said the policy board remained open to the possibility of tolling I-35 expansion beyond six lanes. But the board felt that tolling the fifth and sixth lanes in the Waco area would be unfair, considering that the department has already built toll-free six-lane interstate highways in the San Antonio and Austin areas, he said.

“Between Austin and San Antonio, I-35 is already six lanes, and that section has more traffic, but it's free,” he said.

McLennan County Commissioner Joe Mashek, a member of the Waco planning organization, said nobody wants to see a toll road.

“When (the transportation department) builds highways, they're supposed to maintain them and improve them, and if the traffic burdens get greater, they're the ones that are supposed to improve it and widen it,” he said. “That's what we pay taxes for.”

To the south, Temple Mayor Bill Jones was more receptive to the concept of tolling new lanes on I-35. Drivers from outside of the area, rather than locals, would end up paying for the expansion, he said.

“Locally, it's not going to affect those in Temple trying to use Interstate 35 within our area,” he said. “They'll always have a choice whether to use the tolled section or not.”

The toll funding would also free up highway funding for other road projects, he said.

“My perspective is I think everything needs to be on the table as we build additional infrastructure in the state of Texas,” Jones said. “We have far greater needs than we have funds to pay for them. And I know one thing's for sure, there's no appetite for increased gas taxes to pay for it.”

Construction queue

On a map of McLennan County, local transportation department officials point to $440 million in local highway construction projects identified by the transportation department and the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization as necessary to accommodate the area's projected growth.

But the Waco district expects to receive only $170 million, or about a third of that money, by 2030 for specific projects.

Those projects will also be studied for tolling, Skopik said. They include improvements to State Highway 6/Loop 340, West U.S. Highway 84 through West Waco and Woodway, and the proposed extension of Farm-to-Market Road 185 across northern McLennan County.

In addition to new lanes on I-35, the Waco district is now conducting toll viability studies for new lanes on U.S. Highway 190 between I-35 and Copperas Cove and for a new 190 loop around Copperas Cove.

Skopik said the department would never add toll lanes or build new toll roads in a place where drivers don't have a toll-free alternative.

“There seems to be this nightmare that all of a sudden that you're going to wake up one morning and have no choices but to go use this toll road,” he said. “Really, we're only looking where we've got major traffic.”

According to the transportation department, the state gas tax would have to be raised a full dollar to keep up with construction and maintenance needs. The department spent 70 percent of its 2004 budget on building highways and maintaining them, at a cost of $2 billion and $2.3 billion, respectively. With cars becoming more fuel efficient, raising gas taxes isn't likely to keep up with highway needs, the department says.

“We have to look at all our funding options we have available to us now to see how we can make more of what we have, if we can stretch the gas tax funds to do more,” Garcia said.

A controversial plan to incorporate tolling into a new road between Georgetown and Southeast Austin – mostly making up the new State Highway 130 – is enabling the department to build 65 miles of four-lane divided highway in five years rather than 25 years, Garcia said. The toll plan, which will cost drivers an average of 12 cents a mile, enabled the department to issue $2.2 billion in debt that will be paid off over 40 years time, she said.

“The question is, do we wait five years or 25 years?” Garcia said.

Skopik said a decision on whether tolling will be considered for Interstate 35 should be made next year.

“We're required to study it. It doesn't mean that we're going to do it though,” he said.

If tolls are implemented on Interstate 35, they wouldn't be the first tolls collected in the Waco area. The privately run Waco Bridge Company charged a toll to cross the Waco Suspension Bridge when it opened in 1870, according to historian Roger Conger's 1945 book, Highlights of Waco History.

Twenty years later, McLennan County sold $80,000 in bonds to purchase the bridge. The county then turned the bridge over to the city of Waco for a token $1 on the grounds that the city operate the bridge without tolls.


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