Monday, March 09, 2009

"The Texas Transportation Commission controlled the stimulus purse....they had a clear preference."

With stimulus, tolls mattered more than traffic counts


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

For those of you who might have been concerned, What's Up with That has not taken the early retirement package offered by the Statesman and is once again ready to take your questions.

Q: I saw that $90 million of federal stimulus money will be used to build four flyover bridges connecting U.S. 290 and U.S. 183. Wouldn't it make more sense to use that money for flyovers at U.S. 183 and Interstate 35, or 290 and MoPac Boulevard? Isn't there more traffic at those places?

A: Well yes, there is more traffic and missing flyovers at several other locations around town. The interstate has almost 250,000 cars a day at U.S. 183, which has 84,000 cars a day there, according to Texas Department of Transportation counts, and there are only two "direct connectors" there. It's the same at MoPac/U.S. 290 — two flyovers — with MoPac having 110,000 cars a day and U.S. 290 with 80,000 cars a day. At 183/290, by contrast, U.S. 183 has 50,000 cars a day and U.S. 290 has 43,000 cars a day.

The key difference: tolls. The 183/290 interchange will be the west entry to and exit from what will be a toll road within three years, and the plan is to charge a 25-cent to 50-cent toll on the flyover bridges. You could put tolls on flyovers at those other two locations, but with free roads on each side, the public outcry could be intense.

The Texas Transportation Commission controlled the stimulus purse and, as evidenced by two-thirds of the $1.2 billion for new roads going to tollways, they had a clear preference. Austin officials will take what they can get.

Q: There is a 38.4 cents per gallon federal and state gas tax in Texas. For income taxes, is any portion of that tax deductible with my other sales tax receipts?

A: Good try, but no. I asked former Austin City Council Member Ronney Reynolds, a tax accountant. You can deduct mileage for business travel — the IRS rate was 50.5 cents a mile through June 30, then 58.5 cents a mile in the last half of 2008 — but not for gas taxes.

Q: What happened with those pedestrian islands on South Congress? There were six, then two, and they're still pylons.

A: The two remaining, by St. Edwards University, will stay and may become permanent concrete islands. The two near Guero's Taco Bar are likely gone for good, and the city is exploring other ways for the many pedestrians there to cross the broad avenue.

Q: Will Capital Metro's Red Line commuter trains really start running March 30?

A: Maybe so, but agency officials in recent days have been sending a lot of signs that there might be a short delay. Mid-April appears more likely now.

More questions about rail? Go to to see a full Q-and-A.

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