Thursday, July 05, 2007

"Confusing Setup"

Tollway design generating rash of violations

183-A's toll-tag-only section has more than 30 percent violation rate.

July 05, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American -Statesman
Copyright 2007

More than 30 percent of people who drive on the 183-A tollway's anomalous toll-tag-only section are doing so illegally, an abnormally high violation rate that has the road's operator pondering alternatives to

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has asked Vollmer Associates, its traffic and revenue consultant, to analyze what might result from several scenarios, including continuing under the current arrangement. The authority expects to have that information within a few months and could consider making changes in the fall.

The good news for the agency is that in June, after toll charges began for all drivers, daily traffic on the 4 1/2-mile tollway in Northwest Austin and Cedar Park was about 125 percent higher than projections that were used to borrow money for construction.

On three Wednesdays in June, the tollway had an average of almost 62,000 toll transactions a day. With low-traffic weekends averaged in, the road had about 55,850 daily transactions in June. Vollmer's original traffic and revenue analysis, in December 2004, predicted 24,600 transactions a day by the end of 2007.

Based on unaudited numbers, 183-A generated $775,636 in June. On an annualized basis, that would be $9.4 million, not far below what the agency had expected to make in 2008. However, the agency did not start charging customers with toll tags full price until Sunday; drivers with tags paid 50 percent of the cash rate in June but now will permanently pay 90 percent. The higher price could produce more revenue even if usage ebbs.

"We're getting some complaints up there, but overall we're doing much better than expected," authority spokesman Steve Pustelnyk said. "The issues we're having are with infrequent customers."

Authority officials say that the road over time probably will move toward an all-electronic approach, which would be less confusing than the existing situation, although it would exclude cash customers. The tollway currently is something of a hybrid, with its southern third open only to people with toll tags and the northernmost three miles available for both cash and toll tag customers.

That mixture, along with the road's infancy (it opened March 3), has caused an unusually high number of tag-less people to blunder onto the all-electronic southern section.

That results — after forgiveness for the first couple of violations — in their getting citations and bills for both the forgone toll (45 cents) and a $5 "administrative fee."

The numbers are particularly bad for the northbound all-electronic gantry, which looms over the road just north of the Lakeline Mall Drive exit. In June, 38 percent of northbound drivers in that section did not have a toll tag.

The Lakeline Mall ramp is the last free exit for cars coming from Austin on U.S. 183. Drivers who are inattentive to the signs pointing that out or who are unaware that the road doesn't have cash booths for part of its length can find themselves on a toll-tag-only section with no tag. On the three other toll roads in the Austin area, which are operated by the Texas Department of Transportation, going through a tag lane with no tag generates only a bill at a higher toll rate (cameras record the car's license plate, and the bill goes to the car's owner). But on 183-A, which is run by the mobility authority under a different policy, doing so is considered a toll violation and triggers that $5 fee.

The tollway's this-and-that arrangement is not necessarily what the mobility authority would have chosen. With two flyover bridges from Texas 45 North hitting the road near Lakeline Boulevard and heavy traffic in the area, the agency had neither the room nor the inclination to build a broad toll plaza there with cash booths. In the alternative, the authority wanted the entire road to be open only to cars with toll tags, like toll roads that have opened in the past year or two in Dallas, Tyler and Houston.

But after looking at the numbers, Vollmer said that cutting off the entire road from cash customers would hurt revenue badly and not allow enough money to be borrowed for construction. So the agency built cash booths at Park Street and Brushy Creek Road. Now, with 70 percent to 80 percent of the customers at those points (and southbound at Lakeline Boulevard) using toll tags, going all-electronic is becoming a serious possibility.

"Anything we do, we have to do very carefully with great research," Pustelnyk said. "We don't want to make any sudden changes."

Tracking 183-A tolls

In June, the first month when all cars on 183-A were subject to tolls (albeit at a reduced rate for toll tag users), the road averaged 55,850 toll transactions a day. However, more than 11,000 of those times — about 20 percent — the driver did not pay for the privilege, many at the toll-tag-only toll gantries near Lakeline Boulevard.

Toll point Daily toll transactions Violations Violation % Tag Use
Lakeline (northbound)* 16,246 6,216 38.3 61.7
Lakeline (southbound)* 10,260 2,148 20.9 79.1
Brushy Creek (northbound)** 3,623 187 5.2 76.5
Brushy Creek (southbound)** 2,701 151 5.6 79.7
Park Street (both directions)** 23,016 2,515 10.9 73.2

* Toll-tag-only plaza with no cash booths

** Cash booths and toll tag readers

Source: Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, unaudited toll statistics; 445-3698

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