Thursday, June 26, 2008

Only electronic toll booths will stay - forcing more drivers to buy a TaxTag (TxTag)

First 'cashless' toll road for Central Texas

Mobility authority to rely on toll tags and 'video bills' on 183-A by late this year.

June 26, 2008

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

The 183-A tollway in Cedar Park will go "cashless" late this year, the first of Central Texas' four toll roads to take payment through only toll tags and bills mailed to drivers who don't have tags. It won't be the last, however.

The Texas Department of Transportation, when it opens the Texas 45 Southeast tollway next year, will do so without tollbooths or other cash facilities. TxDOT also is studying whether to follow the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's lead on 183-A and shutter the tollbooths on its three Austin-area roads to reduce costs.

The mobility authority, which is well along in planning what it is now calling the "Manor Expressway" on U.S. 290 East, says that road and any other future tollways operated by the agency will have no cash collection.

The tollbooths on 183-A could shut down as early as November; the exact timing will be dependent on installation of overhead signs alerting drivers to the change to all-electronic operation.

"I had to convince myself," Ron Fagan, the mobility authority's director of operations, said to the agency board shortly before it voted unanimously to eliminate cash collection on 183-A. "I was a huge nonfan of going cashless."

Before coming to Austin a few years ago, Fagan worked with a toll road agency in Orlando, Fla., where he said many of the drivers were tourists and only about 66 percent of customers had toll tags.

But about 80 percent of those driving on the 4.5-mile-long 183-A have toll tags, Fagan told the authority board. About 500,000 cars in Central Texas have the tags, according to TxDOT.

Since the agency began "video billing" in early May, 10 percent of 183-A drivers now pass under the electronic gantries on the Cedar Park road without a tag. The vehicle owners in those cases get bills based on photos of license plates, and even in the early stages of billing and collection efforts, Fagan said, the agency has been able to get payments from about 45 percent of those people.

That leaves 10 percent who have been paying with cash at the eight booths at the broad Park Street toll plaza — Fagan said typically only one booth in each direction is staffed at rush hour — and the cash collection baskets at the Brushy Creek ramps on 183-A. The agency is collecting about $1.7 million in cash annually, Fagan said, and spending about $1.1 million to do it, much of that on salaries and costs associated with handling money.

Fagan estimates that the agency would have to collect from at least 36 percent of video customers — he expects to do much better than that — to make up for the $600,000 netted annually from cash collections. And the agency would save in other ways, such as not having to build plazas and booths on future tollways.

The 183-A tollway opened 16 months ago at a construction cost of about $170 million, including the tollbooths. The board and Fagan discussed what might happen with those booths and other facilities at Park Street, including the possibility of a Starbucks Coffee or some sort of dry cleaning drop-off and pickup.

Fagan said the agency has already heard from companies interested in using the facilities, adding that it will take several months to decide what to do with the booths.; 445-3698

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