Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"What's going on in Houston will be a model for what people around the state can look forward to."

Harris leaders rethink plan to double tollway fees

June 20, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Harris County leaders said Wednesday they might reconsider their decision to double peak hour fees on the Westpark Tollway, but the review might not lead to a reduction in toll rates.

Commissioners Court, instead, might focus on whether the peak periods could be shortened.

Several Commissioners Court members received phone calls and e-mails criticizing their decision Tuesday to double tollway fees during peak hours.

"My initial thought was to implement these changes and then review them," said County Judge Ed Emmett. "But my view may be changing on that."

But unless the court revisits the issue, the Harris County Toll Road Authority plans to move forward with the new fee schedule in September, said Peter Key, the authority's deputy director. The authority would study whether the peak-hour fees should be lower or higher after they go into effect, he said.

The toll road authority pushed for so-called congestion pricing during peak hours, hoping to reduce traffic on the tollway and allow it to begin moving at a 50 mph-60 mph rate again, Key said.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he wants the court to discuss congestion pricing further — and possibly reducing the hours during which the higher tolls are charged — at an upcoming meeting.

The court authorized the toll road authority to set peak-hour pricing from 6-9 a.m. for inbound traffic and 4-7 p.m. for outbound traffic.

Toll transactions along the main part of the tollway now cost $1. That fee will rise to $1.25 per transaction during non-peak hours. And the rate during peak hours will be $2.50 per transaction.

"I don't think we need three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon," Radack said.

Radack on Tuesday said of drivers unhappy about peak-hour pricing, "Let them go down Richmond Road. Or they can use Westpark," a secondary road near the tollway. His office received a slew of phone calls and e-mails from residents critical of his comment, he said.

Commissioner El Franco Lee said of the Westpark peak-hour pricing, "Nothing is so ironclad that you can't make it better and more palatable for the public."

Toll road prices will go up 25 cents throughout the toll road system in September, Key said.

Traffic experts concluded that traffic can move at 50 mph-60 mph on the tollway when there are 3,600 vehicles passing a given area hourly, Key said. About 4,200 cars an hour now pass through key areas of the tollway during peak hours, causing backups, he said.

A traffic consultant hired by the authority concluded that a peak-hour fee of $2.50 will drive off enough customers to reduce traffic to 3,600 vehicles an hour, Key said.

"If you're paying a toll and you're not going anywhere, there isn't any value to the tollway," he said.

It now costs about $2.35 to drive the 14-mile length of the tollway in Harris County, counting exit ramp fees. The court's vote on Tuesday called for that price to rise to $5.50 during peak hours, Key said. Tolls wouldn't change along the Fort Bend County portion of Westpark.

Kyle Bigelow, an Alief resident who works as a systems analyst in the Galleria area, said he will stop using the tollway if peak hour pricing goes into effect.

He now spends $1,200 a year commuting on the tollway and can't afford to spend $2,400-$3,000 on annual commuting costs.

"I'm still working at paying off my student loans," said Bigelow, 26. "The middle and lower classes can't afford this. They're basically reserving the tollway for the upper class. I don't find that fair."

Bonnie Scott, in an e-mail, said, "I spend $150 a month on that toll road and now with this new increase you can bet I will go down Richmond. Maybe (Radack) has deep pockets, but I am just a 57-year-old taxpayer."

Congestion pricing is used elsewhere in the country to keep traffic flowing on gridlock-prone highways. It hasn't been tried before in Texas, but the future Katy Freeway toll lanes are expected to have peak-hour pricing.

"What's going on in Houston will be a model for what people around the state can look forward to," said Christopher Poe, director of the Center on Tolling Research at Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.

The peak hour prices on the tollway would raise the toll rate during regular hours from about 18 cents per mile to about 20 cents. The peak hour rate would be about 42 cents.

Rates can be much higher in other parts of the country.

During peak hours on Friday afternoons, motorists on State Route 91 in the Los Angeles area pay nearly $1 per mile and $9.50 for a 10-mile trip.

"The idea is not to discourage use," Poe said. "It's to get people to change their schedules to reduce the demand at peak hours."

Jim McGrath spokesman for a group that wants District Clerk Charles Bacarisse to run for county judge, criticized the court for raising toll fees 25 cents throughout the system and imposing peak-hour fees on the Westpark Tollway. McGrath said Bacarisse agrees with the court that a bond package should be put before voters in November.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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