Houstonians were allowed to vote on their toll roads. Austinites were not.
Turnpikes in Houston financially healthy, popular, and cited by Austin tollway supporters.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
By Ben Wear
HOUSTON — There's a story told around here about A.J. Foyt and Houston traffic.
Foyt, the race car driver pretty much synonymous with speed on four wheels, came to town in the 1970s and as part of a radio station promotion took a lap around the still-new Loop 610 in traffic. It took him, so the story goes, an hour and a half to drive that 38 miles. That's about 25 miles per hour.
Limo driver Paul Hanrath, like many Houstonians, uses tollways daily. He passes the fees to customers, who are happy to pay for the convenience.
Cars paying with cash at Houston's toll plazas pay 25 cents more than drivers with EZ Tags. More than a million city drivers use the toll tag, which is similar to the TxTag available to Central Texas drivers. Some tollways will open in Central Texas on Nov. 1.
"I guess they took heed of that, and that's why they've built so many roads since then," says Paul Hanrath, a professional driver himself. In Hanrath's case, the vehicle is a Lincoln Town Car, not an open-wheel racer, and the mission is providing limo service, not winning Indy.
Perhaps the Foyt tale has ripened with time. But Houston traffic, as anyone who ever spent a few hours there knows, is definitely real.
Given that, maybe success was predictable for Houston toll roads, which got an 18-year head start on the Austin tollways opening next month.
The 108-mile tollway system last year turned a $137 million profit, and more than 1 million cars are driving around Greater Houston with EZ Tags, the electronic windshield sticker that allows drivers to pay without cash and without slowing down.
Every weekday, about 1.2 million times a day, a car passes one of the tolling stations set up on the Harris County Toll Road Authority's four roads. Had Harris County leaders not pushed for the system in 1983, persuading voters by a 7-3 ratio to go along, it's likely that a sizeable portion of those 108 miles of highway would still be just lines on Texas Department of Transportation maps. And that those million or so car trips would be occurring on Interstate 10, Interstate 45, U.S. 59 or other Houston free roads.
As Central Texas prepares to enter its own tolling age — kicking and screaming to a degree, especially over toll plans for some expansions of existing roads, and unsure of how many people will use the system — the Houston experience indicates at least that some Texans will buy tollways if the product meets a demonstrated need for speed.
"Toll roads are not really controversial here because everyone loves to drive," says Hanrath, who puts in about 100,000 miles a year, about 80 percent of that on the toll roads. "Anything that gives them another option or speeds up their commute, people are willing to pay for the privilege."
His monthly EZ Tag bill is about $150, most of which he passes on directly to customers.
"They'd rather spend an extra 10 minutes with their client before heading back to the airport and pay $2 for the toll road," Hanrath says.
Unlike many of Hanrath's clients, Janet Schell can't slap her toll charges onto an expense account. And the fourth-grade teacher isn't exactly swimming in disposable cash. Even so, she finally broke down last month and came to the EZ Tag store on the Sam Houston Tollway's southern stretch to get herself a toll tag.
"I'm very frugal," Schell said. "But I have to do early morning duty (at school) and be there by 7:20. And traffic is a bear."
Schell, who lives in Clear Lake southeast of Houston and commutes about 15 miles to work near Hobby Airport, estimates using the tollway and the tag, rather than sitting in the cash line, will save her five or six minutes and cost her 75 cents each morning. She's decided to give herself that extra time as a birthday present.
"Here's the bad part," she says, contemplating the opening of a transportation Pandora's Box when she's not on her way to work. "Now that I have the toll tag, I'll probably take the tollway more."
Toll road evolution
State Sen. Jon Lindsay, who as Harris County judge was credited with pretty much willing the toll road system into existence in the 1980s, says no one was certain that toll roads would work. His commissioners court colleagues, he says, were lukewarm to the idea, especially about issuing $900 million in bonds that, if toll revenue fell short, could have sapped county property taxes.
But voters approved creating the toll road authority and borrowing the money. The authority has never had to use property taxes, contributes $20 million a year for other county road projects and has about $650 million stowed away in various accounts.
"If TxDOT had known this was going to do this, do you really think they'd have let us do it?" says Edwin Harrison, the Harris County finance director. "No, they'd have done it themselves and taken the money."
Houston is not Austin, of course. The Houston metro area has 5.3 million people, more than three times Greater Austin's 1.5 million.
Then there's the basic mind-set. Houstonians, utilitarian sorts by and large, care mostly about getting it done, not so much about how. The town's lack of zoning laws is the most famous example of this let-it-be approach. Austinites, gifted with a more scenic area, tend to fret more about what might grow from growth. Highways in Houston are a blessing. Here, for many, they're a mixed blessing, at best.
So, it's hard to know how much credence to give the Houston tollway experience when pondering how Austinites will react.
And then there's the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which, although it has just two toll roads now, both of them heavily used, has an even longer toll road history. What is now Interstate 30 between Dallas and Fort Worth, a free road, was for several decades a tollway. When the debt was paid off, the tolls went away.
Toll roads supporters in Austin, at least, think what has occurred in Houston (and to a lesser extent, Dallas-Fort Worth) is highly relevant. Over and over during the past three years, they have talked about how toll roads could be an "economic engine," eventually churning out hundreds of millions of dollars for roads and rail projects in Central Texas. Just like in Houston, they say.
The Harris County toll authority, after building most of an outer beltway called the Sam Houston Tollway and the Hardy Toll Road to the north suburbs in the early years, added the Westpark Tollway to western Harris County last year. The four-lane road was an instant success and already is jammed at rush hour. Yvette Scheiber, a mom who runs a foundation from her Richmond home, now can't imagine living without it.
"Now everybody takes it," said Scheiber, who uses it twice a day to take her daughter to and from school inside Loop 610. "I would say at least 50 percent to 60 percent of the people I know have toll tags and use them every day.
The main blemish on the Houston toll road picture is the first road that opened, the Hardy. It was originally expected to bring in 80 percent of the money and the Sam Houston Tollway just 20 percent.
It worked out just the opposite, Lindsay said. Since the first section opened in 1987, the Hardy, flanked by free competitors I-45 and U.S. 59 heading north from Loop 610, has brought in $366.6 million in total revenue. Meanwhile, the 61 miles of the Sam Houston, some of which didn't open until 1997, have ginned up $2.2 billion.
The Sam Houston has prospered despite free frontage roads flanking its entire 61 miles, a handy competitor for the toll lanes that, in theory, could seriously dampen revenue. The Austin toll roads opening this year and next have free frontage roads in some places, generally near interchanges with crossing roads. But a controversial second phase of five toll roads planned in Austin would have continuous, free frontage roads like the Sam Houston.
Toll road critics have speculated that the free frontage roads would cause the Austin toll roads to fail financially. The experience with the Sam Houston contradicts that. The road has already produced more than three times its $663 million construction cost.
Attitude in Austin
With three toll roads scheduled to open Nov. 1, and a fourth in the spring, one other thing Austin has that Houston didn't is a sour attitude about toll roads.
There was no election for toll roads here, just policy decisions made years ago by engineers and politicians. When that second phase of roads was proposed in 2004, with four toll roads in the first phase already under construction and a fifth planned, Central Texas was suddenly staring at going from no tollways to 10 in a short time, each charging 15 cents to 18 cents a mile, about double what Houstonians are paying. And several of the proposed second-phase roads were actually expansions of current roads.
But the roads that are about to open in Austin aren't part of that controversy. And like some of the Houston tollways, they seem ideally situated to relieve existing congestion. So, what will carry the day: the utility of the new transportation product, or the cost and odor attached to it?
"Austinites — and I don't know how many, but many — have been offended by the greed of wanting to toll roads we've already paid for," says Sal Costello, a graphic designer from Southwest Austin who has led opposition to toll roads in Austin. "The question is, how many people have been turned off already?"
We're about to find out.
How to get a TxTag
Drivers with a TxTag, a windshield sticker with a tiny transponder, will be able to drive toll roads without stopping at booths and will pay 10 percent less than cash customers. The tag is free, but you'll have to establish an account with a credit or debit card and prepay $20 in tolls. You can get a tag by calling (888) 468-9824, going to www.txtag.org, or visiting the state's tollway customer service center at 12719 Burnet Road.
© 2006 Austin American-Statesman: