Thursday, August 07, 2008

Heiligenstein: "Whether or not it's a toll road or it's not a toll road is inconsequential."

Tolling 290: Neighbors Disagree on Highway


KLBJ News Radio
Copyright 2008

People who use U.S. 290 east of U.S. 183 and west of the SH-130 toll road got to see an elaborate set of plans to upgrade the highway and add a toll road to it.


(More multimedia links below)

"This takes care of the worst of the bottlenecks. The toll facility ends up paying for the non-toll facility. All folks win in this deal," says Mike Heiligenstein, Executive Director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which already oversees the 183-A toll road in Cedar Park. He says the status of the highway makes little difference in the long run to east-side commuters. "Whether or not it's a toll road or it's not a toll road is inconsequential. Over the next twenty years, you're going to see development more than double."

But Dewy Brooks, the president of a homeowners' association in a subdivision right along U.S. 290, doesn't see it that way.

"To take an existing road that's already there and turn it into a toll road and say it's an improvement, I have some issues with that," he says.

Heiligenstein says his agency has worked around Senator Kay Bailey-Hutchison's amendment banning current free roads from being turned into toll roads by keeping the frontage roads free of charge. In the past, the Texas Department of Transportation, a separate entity from the CTRMA, handling the 290 project, has taken a lot of heat from the public about plans to turn parts of Central Texas' highway system into toll roads.

"I don't think the public is shell-shocked anymore. I think when you have 350- to 400,000 toll tags on cars in central Texas, people are looking for more places to use them because their experience, I think, has been very positive," Heiligenstein said.

Part of the controversy was that the state intentionally lowered speed limits and added more traffic signals to slow traffic and promote the usage of the toll highways.

"We don't add signalization to the non-tolled facilities for the sake of trying to drive people to the toll road. That would show a complete lack of ethics and integrity," Heiligenstein said.

"In my mind, it will become an inconvenience to take it from 60 to 45 and unless they time the light correctly, it may take me even longer to get out onto the road," Brooks contends.

He has lived in his subdivision for about 12 years and says traffic has more than doubled in his area since moving in. But Brooks does not believe tolling U.S. 290 is the answer.

"Folks that will be moving, they know the toll road is coming. 'We were here', that's what I hear a lot," he says.

Jesus Valenzuela moved into the subdivision where brooks lives at about the same time.

"The builder doesn't care how we feel because this is about money," Valenzuela told KLBJ. "It's about money, it's not about people."

Both are concerned about the slower speed limits, 45 miles per hour, planned for the frontage roads of the proposed 290-toll road. Technically, the "U.S. 290" shield-graphic signs would be posted on the frontage roads, since they would replace the current tax-funded highway. Signs with graphics similar to the 183-A toll road, reflecting "290 toll" would be erected along the new toll highway.

"There will be lower speed limits on the frontage roads because that's where the intersections will be and that's where the neighborhoods would be. So we don't want to inundate those neighborhoods with 70-mile-per-hour traffic. If you want to drive 70, you'd better get on the toll road," Heiligenstein said.

"You always hear 'you don't have to take the toll road, you can take the free road.' I contend, yes, that is true, but to whose convenience?" Brooks said.

Valenzuela says after seeing the presentation Wednesday evening, he thinks the plan is pretty clear.

"It's already in place and we're just being notified of the situation," he said.

The CTRMA says the proposed upgrade and conversion of highway 290 would cost around $500-million and construction could begin in as soon as one year.



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