Monday, October 13, 2008

CAMPO wants flyovers bridges to be cash cows

Would you pay toll to skip lights and use flyover?

Officials say novel approach is justified by high cost of building 'direct connect' bridges.


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

A new Austin toll road wrinkle emerged last week: paying to drive a flyover bridge.

The highway folks framed it another way: paying to build a flyover bridge, in this case on the proposed overhaul of U.S. 290 East.

There's certainly logic to what they're saying.

Flyovers, what civil engineers call "direct connects" at the intersection of two expressways, are by far the most expensive segment of a highway project. About $20 million per bridge, officials said last week.

So the theory is, if you want the speed and convenience of going directly from Road A to Road B, and it costs a whole bunch to provide that conduit, then it only makes sense to charge specifically for that. Based on comments last week at a meeting of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board, it sounds like board members generally are OK with this.

A state law passed in 2007 requires that for each proposed Central Texas tollway, the CAMPO board pass judgment on the overall design, initial toll rates and plans for increasing those rates through the years. The board tonight will vote on those elements for the $624 million U.S. 290 East project, which would be the first of Austin's second generation of toll roads and would run 6.2 miles from U.S. 183 to just east of the Texas 130 tollway.

The existing U.S. 290 in that stretch, primarily a divided four-lane highway pocked with stoplights, would be replaced with a six-lane tollway flanked by frontage roads with two or three lanes. And it would have four flyover bridges connecting it to U.S. 183 on its west end.

It would cost 25 cents to 50 cents each time you drove over one of them, according to the plan CAMPO will vote on. This would be in addition to the 15 cents to 20 cents a mile for driving on the tollway proper, the plan says, higher than the 11 cents a mile on Texas 130. The rate could go up annually commensurate with inflation.

To address one question many might have immediately: No, there wouldn't be tollbooths on the flyover bridge. You'd have to have a toll tag to use the flyover, which would have tag-scanning equipment suspended above the bridge. All new toll roads in Austin, in fact, are likely to be all-electronic from now on.

So if a westbound motorist entered the U.S. 290 tollway near Manor and then took a flyover to U.S. 183, it could cost as much as $1.25 along the road and up to 50 cents more on the bridge.

Or the driver could exit before getting to the flyover, go through some stoplights and then enter U.S. 183 downstream of the flyover. Lost time, but no extra toll.

Tolls for bridges are not unprecedented. In fact, there's a toll for the Sam Houston Tollway over the Houston Ship Channel.

I asked highway officials if any of the state's dozen or so existing tollways have extra tolls on flyovers. They couldn't name any.

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