Saturday, September 16, 2006

"The Gov. is pushing the collection of tolls just past the November election because he knows it's going to cost him votes and probably the election."

Toll roads to open Nov. 1

Perry aide denies that earlier debut before election is politically motivated

September 16, 2006

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

Central Texas will join Dallas and Houston in the Texas toll road fraternity on Nov. 1, when all or parts of the area's first three turnpikes will open to traffic, state officials confirmed this week. With no tolls, temporarily.

To meet that earlier date — officials in June had predicted a December opening of about 40 miles of tollways — the Texas Department of Transportation will initially bring down the barricades on just 26.3 miles of Texas 130, Texas 45 North and an extension of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1). The other 13.8 miles of Texas 130 previously announced as part of this tollway premiere, from near Hutto to Interstate 35 north of Georgetown (and perhaps more of Texas 45 North, west of Loop 1), likely will open in early December.

Starting Nov. 1, cars will pass through the toll booths on 26.3 miles of MoPac Boulevard along with Texas 130 and Texas 45 North. For two months, the toll roads will be free.

Even in its incomplete form, what the state calls the Central Texas Turnpike Project will offer an alternative expressway to I-35 via Texas 45 North and Loop 1 for people going to and from Round Rock, as well as a partial eastern bypass of Northeast Austin on Texas 130. The speed limit on all three roads will be 70 mph.

All the roads will be free for the first two months. This is a common promotional practice for toll roads, allowing drivers to sample the road at no cost and, toll agencies hope, engendering some good will for the paying days to come.

In early January, cash customers will begin paying tolls of about 15 cents a mile. But people with an electronic toll tag (called a TxTag by the agency) on their windshields and an account on file with the Transportation Department will get yet another month of free service. And in February, TxTag users will pay only half price. In March, the promotions end.

Those extra financial breaks for people with TxTags are an effort to get more people to sign up and use them, turnpike director Phillip Russell said this week. Toll transactions with tags (an overhead reader detects the passing tag and triggers a debit to the tag owner's transportation account) cost the agency much less than dealing with cash and having to hire people to staff toll booths, officials say. Having fewer people swerving and jerking to a stop for toll booths causes less congestion and fewer accidents, they say.

And toll tags, like credit cards, have the additional advantage — from the seller's point of view — of making toll payments an invisible and seemingly painless purchase.

Officials expect to cut the ribbon after rush hour on that Wednesday morning of Nov. 1 where the new Texas 45 North tollway meets the new Texas 130 turnpike in a tangle of flyover bridges. The early opening — and free service — will come just six days before toll road advocate Gov. Rick Perry stands for re-election, timing that at least one of Perry's opposing campaigns found more than suspect.

"Clearly this is being directed by the governor's campaign," said Mark Sanders, spokesman for Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, running as an independent for governor. "What the governor is doing is pushing the collection of tolls just past the November election because he knows it's going to cost him votes and probably the election."

Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt, asked about the opening switch, said she hadn't even heard it was occurring in November rather than December. Perry, at least as of Thursday, didn't have the ribbon-cutting on his schedule, she said.

"He did not ask them to open it early," Walt said. "Obviously the governor's been interested in making sure that TxDOT moves projects along as quickly as possible to address traffic congestion. But TxDOT makes the decisions when segments of roads are opened all the time."

Transportation Department officials, meanwhile, said the change in plans has nothing to do with politics. Instead, they said, money — specifically the $2.3 billion the agency acquired through a 2002 bond sale and is using (along with $1.2 billion of local and state tax dollars) to build the three roads — offers plenty of incentive to open the road and begin bringing in revenue as soon as possible. Since 2003, the agency, using some of the money it borrowed, has been paying between $74 million and $86 million a year in debt payments.

Revenue isn't predicted to top the $86 million figure until 2011, when operating and maintenance expenses will have kicked in as well Unless traffic and revenue exceed projections, the system won't operate in the black for many years.

Debt payments will increase over the next 36 years to almost $500 million a year, according to documents from the 2002 bond sale.

"You've borrowed money, and that interest clock is ticking," Russell said. "You want a toll road to open as soon as possible. It may not be perfect, but it will be safe."

Safe, perhaps, but far from complete.

Russell said landscaping and other finishing touches will continue for months on the sections opening in November and December. But more important, Texas 130 will open without completion of a flyover bridge that will allow unobstructed left turns for people traveling from U.S. 290 eastbound to Texas 130 northbound. Drivers, until that bridge is complete early next year, will make those turns using a more traditional ground-bound interchange of frontage roads and stop lights.

And the incomplete sections of Texas 130 south of U.S. 290 (it will extend another 20 miles to Mustang Ridge by the end of 2007) and, at least briefly, north of U.S. 79 mean continuing construction and obstruction in those areas. Aside from the ongoing work on Texas 130 by contractor Lone Star Infrastructure, the state has other companies at work on Texas 45 North from west of Loop 1 to U.S. 183 at Lakeline Mall.

And the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has yet another contractor building a fourth toll road, U.S. 183-A, that will run north for more than four miles from Texas 45 North to Cedar Park. The mobility authority is also building seven more miles of free frontage roads, extending north from the end of the U.S. 183-A toll road and running beyond Leander. Years from now, when traffic merits it, toll express lanes will be built in the middle of those frontage roads to extend the turnpike.

In all, there should be about 70 miles of operating toll roads in Central Texas by the end of next year.

All of them will have both electronic toll gantries and cash toll booths. Customers with toll tags will be able to drive at full highway speed under those gantries and go through toll stations on entrance and exit ramps without pausing. Cash customers will give money to toll collectors or, in some cases, toss correct change into a basket.

Drivers using cash will pay 75 cents at the single mainlane plaza on Loop 1 and another 75 cents on Texas 45 North, and on many ramps will pay another 50 cents to enter or exit the tollway. On Texas 130, the single main lane toll plaza in the section opening Nov. 1 will carry a cash charge of $1.50, and the charge on certain ramps will likewise be 50 cents.

In all cases, customers with toll tags will pay 10 percent less.; 445-3698

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