Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ric Williamson: "The road to Hades is paved with good intentions."

Emergency vehicles must pay tolls except during pursuits and emergencies, state commission decides

Standard for Central Texas is stricter than policies on other Texas toll roads.

January 25, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

DUNCANVILLE — Austin police, fire and emergency medical vehicles will have to pay tolls on Central Texas' three existing turnpikes unless they are pursuing a suspect or responding to an emergency, the Texas Transportation Commission decided today.

The policy for other Texas Department of Transportation tollways around the state will be more forgiving for public safety vehicles, allowing them to use turnpikes toll-free if they are "on duty."

The tougher policy in Central Texas is due to binding promises made to investors in 2002 when the Transportation Department issued $2.2 billion in bonds to build Texas 130, Texas 45 North and the Loop 1 extension. About 41 miles of what will eventually be 66 miles of those three roads opened last fall.

The department promised that all vehicles would pay to use the toll roads, with certain exceptions for military vehicles, construction vehicles and "marked public safety vehicles . . . traveling under flashing lights and sirens."

The policy passed today by the Transportation Commission in its monthly meeting alters the agreement slightly, forgoing the requirement for lights and sirens. Phillip Russell, the department's turnpike director, said it would be up to public safety agencies to later confirm that a given trip was an emergency or active police pursuit so the toll charge can be canceled.

Russell said he trusts public safety agencies not to abuse what will essentially be an honor system. The new policy will take effect immediately. By April 27, commissioners said they will evaluate the policy to see if public safety agencies are abusing the privilege.

"I think it will be OK," Russell said.

The policy does not apply to the 183-A tollway, which in March will be the fourth Central Texas turnpike to open. That road is being built and will be operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which will set its own policy on public safety vehicles.

It also won't apply to any future tollways opened in the Austin area by the state Transportation Department because those roads would not be subject to the 2002 bond documents.

The commission is trying to keep toll exemptions to a minimum and avoid a slippery slope that led to the North Texas Tollway Authority granting no-toll passes to about 3,000 vehicle owners.

"The road to Hades is paved with good intentions," commission Chairman Ric Williamson said. "We're really sensitive about this."

Police had argued for the more forgiving "on-duty" policy on the theory that officers should never find themselves questioning whether a particular police trip would be worth the toll cost.

In other business, the commission approved so-called "video tolling" for the three Austin toll roads and set the toll rates at 33 percent above the charge for vehicles with toll tags. Drivers will be able to drive through toll tag lanes and receive a bill in the mail; the charge would be 60 cents for the typical exit or entrance ramp charge, compared with 45 cents for toll tag customers and 50 cents for cash customers.; 445-3698

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