Monday, May 07, 2007

183-A Tollway: "How much are they charging? You can't tell from driving it."

Signs of the toll times

May 07, 2007

Ben Wear
Austin American-Ststesman
Copyright 2007

The big green signs suspended above Interstate 35 north of Georgetown offer southbound drivers an interesting choice: Austin or Austin.

Three lanes, one sign says, take you to Austin on I-35, essentially the same route through Georgetown and Round Rock that people have been using since about, oh, 1930. Or, another sign says, you can exit right and use "130, Toll" to get to Austin. Of course, if you do that you'll swing several miles to the east, get a close look at Hutto and Pflugerville, and have to pay about $3 to get to Austin's fringe. But the sign is accurate, technically.

That doesn't mean people aren't befuddled. I've talked to three longtime Austinites in the past few weeks who, against all logic and experience, blundered onto that Texas 130 option and spent the next 30 minutes concerned because they were looking at empty fields rather than Round Rock. They had no earthly idea what had happened or where they were.

I tell you this to illustrate the dislocation many Central Texans are feeling with all these new toll roads and the importance of signs at a time of radical change to our transportation system. The American-Statesman has run tollway maps dozens of times in the past three years and still carries them on its Web site, and the area's two toll road agencies have maps online, too. Even so, conversations with people who work a few feet from me indicate that the overhauled Austin highway map remains fuzzy to them.

I drove the system this week to look at the signs, and there are some problems aside from that not-so-helpful Texas 130 sign north of Georgetown.

Take the 183-A tollway, which opened in March and is beginning to charge cash customers. How much are they charging? Well, you can't tell from driving it.

There is no mention of the price on any of the 4.5-mile turnpike's tolling points. So a customer driving up to a booth will have no clue that he needs 50 cents at the ramp booths and $1.50 at the main Park Street toll plaza. For that matter, the TxTag driver doesn't know what he's paying, either. This may not be an accident.

And what if you don't want to drive the tollway and prefer to take the good old free U.S. 183 instead? Coming from the south on 183, before the turnpike, you see a blinking electronic sign pointing you to the "last free exit" at Lakeline Mall Drive. But once you get there, well, it's far from obvious how to get to 183 (you have to cross under the tollway about a mile later at Avery Ranch Boulevard.) You have to dead-reckon your way there.

It's a bit better on the Texas Department of Transportation's three tollways. They tell you the price at main toll plazas, although the signs are littered with other stuff and the letters are pretty small. And there is no price info on the ramp plazas, which typically run 50 cents for cash customers. I say "typically" because there are two 75-cent ramps in Round Rock.

Several of the ramp plazas do have one price-related sign that I found intriguing in this context: "Exact change," they say.

Exactly . . . what? You just have to know.

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