"The county is following a worldwide trend in imposing "congestion pricing" to guarantee traffic flow."
Drivers up in arms after officials double the fee at peak hours to ease congestion
By BILL MURPHY
Harris County Commissioners Court's decision Tuesday to fight congestion on the three-year-old Westpark Tollway by forcing some drivers off the road with higher rush-hour fees drew the ire of cash-strapped commuters.
And a dismissive response from Commissioner Steve Radack — "Let them go down Richmond Road" — made the new $2.50 tolls even less palatable for some.
Commuter Vic Stewart, in an e-mail, said of the Commissioners Court, "And 'Let them eat cake!' They'll certainly have time."
Commissioners Court voted unanimously to hike fees to $2.50 from 6-9 a.m. and 4-7 p.m., hoping fewer drivers will use the tollway.
The court, also in a unanimous vote, raised fees by 25 cents on all county toll roads. The increases will go into effect in September.
With the toll roads already known among some area residents as "Lexus Lanes," the new prices left some drivers wondering whether the court has forgotten about working people.
"There are people who have budgeted a certain amount for tolls and need to use the tollway to get to work by a certain time in the morning," said Carol Ann Shipp. "These are not affluent professionals for whom the doubling of tolls is negligible. These are hardworking middle-class workers who must count every penny."
Radack said those who cannot afford the rush-hour fees should use alternate roads. "Let them go down Richmond Road," he said. "Or they can use Westpark," the surface road running alongside the tollway.
Six months after the four-lane Westpark Tollway opened in 2004, traffic backups began occurring in certain areas, said Peter Key, toll road authority deputy director. Congestion has worsened since then.
More lanes not possible
The toll road authority would have preferred building a six- or even eight-lane tollway, Key said. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owned the land in the area, was willing to sell only enough for a four-lane tollway, he said. Metro wanted to keep the remaining land in case it builds a commuter rail line along the tollway, Key said.
Metro paid $80.8 million to buy the rail corridor from Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific Railroad, in 1992. Seven years later, it sold a 13.3-mile strip in the corridor to the toll road authority for $14.3 million.
Metro vice president John Sedlak said Metro has considered using the corridor for rail for several decades and may build a light rail line along parts of the corridor, from the Hillcroft Transit Center to an undetermined distance east of the West Loop.
County Judge Ed Emmett said the county is following a worldwide trend in imposing "congestion pricing" to guarantee traffic flow.
"The justification is that people pay for a tollway they can move on," he said.
Key said raising the tollway's rush-hour rates will cause some motorists to use the Southwest Freeway and surface roads — that's what the toll road authority wants to happen. The toll road authority could eventually impose congestive pricing on other parts of the toll road system prone to backups, he added.
But Matt Gelotti, in an e-mail, wrote that the rate hike doesn't make sense to him because it will not improve traffic flow throughout southwest Houston, only on the tollway.
"This is absolutely ridiculous," he wrote. "They should have built the road right the first time to handle all of the traffic."
Key said the 25-cent increase in all tolls is needed to maintain the toll road authority's good financial standing, pay for maintenance and build six toll segments estimated to cost $4.4 billion.
The hikes will in part pay for extending the Hardy Toll Road to downtown and the Sam Houston Tollway into northeast Harris County, turning 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.
HIKE FOR ALL TOLLS
• All county tolls: Will rise 25 cents in September. EZ Tag, now $1, will be $1.25. Cash transactions, now $1.25, will rise to $1.50.
• Westpark Tollway: Now $1, will rise to $1.25 at non-peak hours, $2.50 at peak hours of 6-9 a.m. inbound and 4-7 p.m. outbound.
• Down the road: Toll rates will double over the next 20 years. Rates will go up annually by 2 percent or at the rate of the rise in the consumer price index, whichever is greater.
© 2007 Houston Chronicle:
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