Monday, November 05, 2007

Construction of Texas 45 Southeast Toll Road is funded by gas taxes and motor vehicle fees

The invisible 'double tax' tollway

Texas 45 Southeast will have tolls even though tax and fee money is paying for all of it.

November 05, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Lost amid all the talk these past few months about which proposed Austin toll road is or isn't "double taxation" has been the one road that most closely fits the definition of what is: Texas 45 Southeast. And, unlike the five proposed tollways everyone was fighting over until officials approved them Oct. 8, this tollway is already under construction. Go south on Interstate 35 to where FM 1327 crosses it, and you'll see the concrete pilings of a future interchange. Farther east, you can see the swath cut by bulldozers defining the route Texas 45 Southeast will take to U.S. 183. The 7.4-mile toll road should be open by early 2009.

And when those tolls starts rolling in — probably about $1 for a passenger car or pickup to drive from I-35 to U.S. 183 at Mustang Ridge — not one penny will go to pay back debt.

Unlike with the typical toll road, the Texas Department of Transportation borrowed nothing to build Texas 45 Southeast. The entire cost of the road — about $210 million to $220 million — is coming from the gas taxes and motor vehicle fees that have historically funded Texas roads.

It's just that scenario — putting tolls on a road built with only taxes and fees — that convinced elected officials to purge three other roads or sections of roads from Austin tollway plans over the past three years. No one in officialdom, however, has seemed particularly troubled by the similar scenario playing out on Texas 45 Southeast.

So how much money will the road bring in? And where will it go?

Hard to say on that first one. The Transportation Department has not done an official, up-to-date traffic and revenue study on Texas 45 Southeast, mostly because such studies normally are triggered by the intention to borrow money. At the east end, U.S. 183 sees about 16,000 cars a day. And the Texas 130 tollway, which will connect with Texas 45 Southeast by 2010, is predicted to have just 5,000 vehicles a day at that junction. The roads are intended to create an eastern loop around Austin.

At the west end, I-35 has about 100,000 cars a day. Presumably, some of those southbounders on I-35 could choose to take Texas 45 Southeast to get to U.S. 183 and go on to Lockhart. Or people from Lockhart who now go farther north on U.S. 183 to get to Austin via Burleson Road, Seventh Street or Airport Boulevard could turn west on the new tollway. Northbounders on I-35, some of them, will take the Texas 45 Southeast/Texas 130 bypass, at a cost of about $7 for a car, almost $30 for an 18-wheeler.

But how many a day? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? If so, annual income from the road initially would be $4 million to $8 million. Some of that would go to day-to-day maintenance, and some presumably would be set aside for long-term maintenance. Some would go to toll costs. Although the road will be all electronic with no tollbooths, processing toll-tag transactions, as well as processing tolls levied on cars with no toll tags using snapshots of license plates, would eat up a few percentage points of the revenue.

The rest of the revenue, according to stated policy of the Transportation Department, would stay in the Austin area and be available for use on other transportation projects. Bob Daigh, the Austin district engineer for the Transportation Department, has said that it probably would help pay for maintenance on Texas 130 and the agency's two other Austin toll roads. But those roads are bringing in more money than expected, so it's unclear whether any or all of the Texas 45 Southeast money will be needed.

At the start, in any case, that "profit" is not going to be enough to make much difference around here. The meaningful effect probably will be a decade or three down the road and depend on Southeast Travis County and Caldwell County seeing the kind of development that so far has gone to other parts of the metro area.

So why has no one made a stink about "double taxation" here? The road, for one thing, is a brand new road, not an expansion of an existing one as was the case with the controversial roads. And, frankly, it's in a part of the Austin area with very little political stroke.

Road officials have always rejected the double taxation charge, saying that even a road such as Texas 45 Southeast needs money in the years ahead for maintenance and rehabilitation. And any excess revenue, they have said, will be an "economic engine" for the area. If so, Texas 45 Southeast will be the purest example of that potential engine around.

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