Monday, December 04, 2006

"How are you going to make a profit if nobody will pay to use the thing?"

Proposed toll road could drive away truckers

December 04, 2006

By Mike Anderson

The Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2006

The proposed Trans-Texas Corridor has been touted as a means to ease congestion along Interstate 35 by siphoning off some of the thousands of trucks that use the interstate each day. Unfortunately, proponents of the massive project may have trouble getting some truckers interested in paying a toll to haul their goods across the state.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, passenger vehicles could pay 15.2 cents per mile and truck drivers 58.5 cents per mile to drive on the 370-mile corridor. The fees were set as part of a master plan for the 1,200-foot-wide tollway, rail and utility corridor developed by international firm Cintra-Zachry. The company is expected to spend $8.8 billion to build the road and pay the state $1.9 billion for the opportunity, according to the plan. The company then would have rights to recoup its expenses and make a profit by charging tolls for 50 years.

But for truck drivers like Joe and Sarah Herschberger, such a toll would add too big a burden to their operating expenses. The husband-and-wife truck-driving team from Pennsylvania, taking a break at a Waco truck stop last week, said they drive across the country on a regular basis and avoid tolls whenever they can.

“We don’t work for a company, we own our rig, so all our expenses come out of our pockets,” Joe said.

“We get paid about $1,500 a month, and most of that goes back into the truck in operating expenses,” Sarah added. “With the cost of gas lately, there’s not much left over for us.”

Some national trucking companies also say that they don’t send their drivers on toll roads and that the Trans-Texas Corridor won’t be different.

“We are not in favor of a toll road. That’s the way my company feels about it,” said Glen Burnett, manager of the Waco service center for the North Carolina-based Old Dominion Freight Line. “If (I-35) is still open and free, we are going to send our trucks on it. Why pay a toll when you can go for free?”

Concern over tolls

Such sentiments have raised concerns for Waco resident Roy Walthall and other members of the Trans-Texas Corridor Advisory Committee. Walthall said he does not consider charging a toll a good solution to reducing I-35 congestion.

“We just keep scratching our heads about it,” Walthall said of the advisory committee. “How are you going to make a profit if nobody will pay to use the thing? They keep saying we do this all over the world and make millions of dollars, but I’m not sure how that’s going to work here.”

Walthall said one solution might be to move more freight by rail lines proposed as part of the corridor. Another would be to build toll roads only as routes around congested areas such as Austin and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

Ken Roberts, spokesman for the highway department’s Waco office, said transportation officials “generally agree” that not all truckers will pay a toll to drive the corridor.

“But if we could get 10 percent to take the Trans-Texas Corridor, we could make a difference,” Roberts said. “Of the 80,000 vehicles a day on I-35, a third of those are trucks. It could be a significant reduction.”

Roberts said some truckers also may avoid the corridor because they need to stop regularly at cities along the interstate as part of their delivery routes. Cross-country truck drivers would benefit more from the planned road, he said.

John Esparza, president and CEO of the Texas Motor Transportation Association, agreed it is not safe to assume trucks will use the corridor in great numbers. But he applauded state officials for trying innovative ways to expand the state’s roadways.

“It’s not about the trucks on the tolls but the passenger vehicles on the tolls that will contribute to the ultimate goal of offering a safe, viable alternative to those who are willing to use it,” Esparza said.


© 2006 The Waco Tribune-Herald: