Friday, June 22, 2007

"After voting for peak-hour pricing, court members became concerned that doubling fees would force some drivers onto just-as-congested nearby roads."

Westpark tolls won't be doubled

Officials listen to irate public but warn congestion will continue


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Top county officials announced Thursday that they will rescind a decision to double fees during peak hours on the Westpark Tollway but warned drivers that traffic backups likely will continue without "congestion pricing."

"The realistic answer is 'yes,' " Commissioner Steve Radack said. "There will be congestion on the Westpark Tollway."

Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to double fees during peak hours as a way to reduce congestion, but agreed two days later to rescind that decision after it was assailed by many tollway drivers and area residents.

"We will cancel the Westpark (peak-hours) increase" at the next Commissioners Court meeting, County Judge Ed Emmett said.

Court members, especially Radack, have received phone calls and e-mail from users angry that Westpark fees would increase from $1 to $2.50 per transaction during peak hours.

The decision to rescind the rate hike "was certainly influenced by the public's reaction," Emmett said.

Congestion pricing was intended to reduce gridlock on the tollway during the morning and evening commutes. But after voting for peak-hour pricing, court members became concerned that doubling the fees would force some drivers onto just-as-congested nearby roads.

The court also voted Tuesday to raise tolls on all Harris County Toll Road Authority roads 25 cents, and that price hike will still occur, Emmett said. Toll-road officials said that increase will go into effect in September.

The 25-cent hike will increase Westpark transactions from $1 to $1.25.

Some Westpark Tollway drivers had said they would stop using the road when peak-hour pricing went into effect from

6 a.m. to 9 a.m. for inbound traffic and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. for outbound traffic.

It now costs $2.35 to drive the 14-mile length of the tollway in Harris County. The court's vote Tuesday would have raised that price to $5.50 during peak hours.

Kyle Bigelow, an Alief resident who drives the tollway, said he and his friends already call the toll roads "Lexus Lanes," and the peak-hour fees would have only furthered that elitist image of the tollway.

Lower- and middle-class residents would have been forced to use secondary roads, he said. Bigelow said he couldn't have afforded to pay $10 or $11 a day commuting to and from his job in the Galleria area.

Radack's comment
On Tuesday, Radack said of drivers who couldn't afford peak-hour fees, "Let them go down Richmond Road. Or they can use Westpark," a secondary road near the tollway. His comment especially angered commuters.

But Emmett said Radack's comment may have been useful because many residents phoned or e-mailed to say that Richmond also is congested and is not a viable alternative.

Emmett said he and other court members reviewed alternatives to the tollway and decided that it is unwise to force some drivers onto backed-up secondary streets and highways where construction is under way, such as Interstate 10.

"The truth of the matter is, we and the consultants hadn't factored in the construction on the other highways," Emmett said. "You can't have congestion pricing if you don't have a place for people to go to avoid congestion."

Chuck Wagner, via e-mail, wondered why the court didn't realize before Tuesday's vote that alternate roads were congested. "Apparently, it didn't occur to those incompetent boobs on the Commissioners Court that the reason the tollway is flooded with cars is that the Katy Freeway has become essentially unusable to people in Katy due to the ongoing construction fiasco," Wagner wrote.

Emmett said the county will look at other ways to reduce gridlock on the tollway. Some possible options include partnering with Metro to allow Metro buses to use the tollway without charge, encouraging carpooling and improving alternate routes.

The toll road authority expected to make $65 million more annually from the 25-cent increase and the peak-hour fees on the tollway, said Peter Key, toll road authority deputy director.

Plans for revenue
The money was needed to maintain good financial standing, pay for maintenance and build six toll segments estimated to cost $4.4 billion.

Emmett said the authority will bring in less money by not imposing peak-hour fees but enough new revenue to start work on the six segments. He was unsure how much would be lost by not imposing impact fees.

The hike will in part pay for extending the Hardy Toll Road to downtown and the Sam Houston Tollway into northeast Harris County, turning the Hempstead Highway into a toll road, carrying out the second phase of the Fort Bend Parkway, adding toll lanes on Texas 288 and building the Fairmont Parkway.

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