Monday, February 12, 2007

Message to Austin commuters: Caveat Driver!

Toll roads: Paying a lot to drive a little

$1.50-per-mile spot near Lakeline Mall illustrates fee discrepancies.

February 12, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

So, what does it cost you to drive on Central Texas' emerging toll road system?

Well, about 12 cents a mile. Unless it's 18 cents, or 40 cents, or 64 cents. Or, in one notable spot near Lakeline Mall, a cool $1.50 a mile.

State and local toll officials chose to install a system that is based on paying every so often, rather than a more old-fashioned "closed road" system in which drivers pass toll plazas on the way in and out and pay a set per-mile amount for their exact mileage. Inevitably, the "open road" approach introduces sizable inconsistencies, with longer trips on the tollway typically more economical than a short jaunt.

Other decisions by toll authorities, particularly choosing to have almost all ramps cost 50 cents for cash customers, have only exacerbated the situation. For some drivers in an area unfamiliar with toll roads in any form, the system has been a source of puzzlement and consternation. Why are there some exits and entrances that are free, drivers wonder, while others nearby have booths and electronic gantries? How can it possibly be fair, they ask, to pay 45 cents to gain just 500 yards?

That will be the situation at the southern end of the 183-A tollway, just north of RM 620, after the road opens in early March and begins charging drivers in late spring.

Northbound motorists will be able to get off at Lakeline Mall Drive, ominously posted as the "last free exit." If they do, they'll have to get through a stoplight on the frontage road before proceeding north.

Or they can go to the next exit, Lakeline Boulevard. In that brief interval, however, they'll pass an electronic toll gantry and be hit with that 45-cent toll. To make it even more confusing, drivers without electronic toll tags are not even supposed to be on the road at that point and will get a violation notice in the mail if they are.

Total distance traveled between the two exits: about three-tenths of a mile. That equates to $1.50 a mile.

"It's just not right," said Cedar Park resident Tom Nehmzow, who would dearly love to exit for free at that second ramp because he takes Lakeline Boulevard home. The Lakeline Mall exit, he said, will be inundated with people looking to avoid paying.

"What they're going to create there is a tremendous traffic jam at Lakeline Mall Drive," he said. "You've got a stoplight at the very bottom of the ramp, so it's going to back up onto the tollway. It's got to."

The irony is that Nehmzow, a manufacturer's representative who drives a lot around the area, has a toll tag and supports toll roads in general.

"Overall, I would say the toll road system is pretty cool. I really enjoy it," he said. "I just think this particular situation is a rip-off."

Officials with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which is building and will operate 183-A, have been bracing for this sort of reaction.

They have an even broader problem, however.

The startup agency originally was going to build 11.6 miles of tollway, all the way from RM 620 to U.S. 183 north of Leander. But a traffic and revenue study done about three years ago indicated that, in the road's first decade, traffic north of RM 1431 would not justify the additional $100 million or so necessary to build express lanes all the way.

So the agency decided instead to build about 4.5 miles of tollway on the south end and then free two-lane frontage roads for the seven northernmost miles. But to pay back money borrowed to build all this, the agency will charge $1.80 for that 4.5-mile tollway trip. That's 40 cents a mile.

Of course, if you happen to live in Leander or points north, or have other business up that way, you'll be able to drive the whole 11.6 miles for that $1.80, stopping at a few stoplights in the free part. Cost: 15.5 cents a mile.

"Admittedly, it does get confusing," said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority since shortly after it was created in 2002. He compared the situation to a water system, in which early users of the system might have to pay for more of the startup costs of water mains but people in more outlying areas developed later get lower costs.

"We tried to hit the middle ground and give everyone a little something," he said. "Not everything's always fair."

As for that Lakeline Boulevard anomaly, Heiligenstein points out that originally the Lakeline Mall Drive exit was going to carry a 50-cent charge (45 cents for people with toll tags). But that would have put the last free exit on northbound U.S. 183 well south of RM 620.

"We added that as a sort of convenience, as a courtesy," he said.

And Heiligenstein pointed out, as did others, that if people stay on 183-A for those extra 500 yards and pay that 45 cents, they're actually purchasing time rather than distance: the time saved by avoiding a stoplight.

That same logic applies on the Loop 1 tollway just north of Parmer Lane, one of three new toll roads built in Central Texas by the Texas Department of Transportation, where going through a toll point south of Wells Branch Parkway for 45 cents gains just seven-tenths of a mile. That equates to 64 cents a mile. But those drivers won't have to stop at the Scofield Ridge Parkway traffic light on the frontage road.

The state and mobility authority could reduce these disparities, of course, by lowering the toll rate at particular ramps. But to satisfy the bond holders looking to get paid back, they then would have to raise the toll rates somewhere else.

And then there's the matter of quarters, dimes and nickels.

When the state was designing the Loop 1, Texas 45 North and Texas 130 toll roads more than five years ago, electronic toll technology was a generation behind where it is now. The bond community, recognizing that a sizable portion of the customer base would never get an electronic toll tag, demanded that the three roads have facilities at every tolling point to collect cash.

Toll authorities increasingly have been setting rates in multiples of 25 cents, because automatic coin collection machines operate better with a single coin size and because it simplifies the coin scramble for drivers. That shortens time at booths and thus reduces toll plaza traffic congestion.

So, to diminish the per-mile disparities, couldn't the toll on some ramps have been just 25 cents? The state Transportation Department decided against that, said Bob Daigh, the Austin district engineer. Daigh was in the agency's turnpike division when the Austin roads were in the final planning stages.

"It's driver expectation," Daigh said. "They need to know, 'This is a ramp plaza, and it's 50 cents.' If you make that one 25 cents, you've introduced a question in the driver's mind as he goes to the next one. He has his quarter out, and it's really 50 cents, so you stack up traffic while he's searching for a second quarter."

Joseph Giglio, a professor of corporate strategy at Boston's Northeastern University and an expert on toll systems, said drivers will sort all this out soon enough.

"We're not talking about introducing the metric system," Giglio said. And if people don't want to pay for a few hundred yards and an avoided stoplight, they won't.

"That's a discretionary choice. There's a willing buyer and seller. Nobody is insisting you pay that 45 cents."

Inconsistent toll rates

The approach taken by the Austin area's two tollway operators means that the cost per mile varies widely, depending on the length and specifics of any given turnpike trip.

Trip Length Toll cost* Cost per mile


Lakeline Mall Drive to Lakeline Blvd. 0.3 $0.45 $1.50

RM 620 to RM 1431 4.5 $1.80 $0.40

RM 620 to South San Gabriel River 11.6 $1.80 $0.16

Loop 1

Wells Branch Pkwy. to Parmer Lane 0.7 $0.45 $0.64

Loop 1/45 North

Parmer to I-35 in Round Rock 4.5 $0.68 $0.15

Loop 1/45 North/130

Parmer to U.S. 79 15.5 $1.80 $0.12

130/45 North

I-35 to U.S. 79 9.8 $1.13 $0.12


I-35 in Georgetown to U.S. 290 25.6 $2.70 $0.11

I-35 in Georgetown to U.S. 183** 49 $5.40 $0.11

* Cost for passenger vehicle with 10 percent toll tag discount. Vehicles with more than two axles are charged an additional toll amount for each additional axle.

** Full length of Texas 130 when final two segments are completed later this year.

Source: Published toll rates, staff research; 445-3698

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