Monday, May 31, 2010

Texas 130 Toll Road: "$68 million in tax money to balance the books over the first three years."

Truck relief on I-35? Maybe a little


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2010

Change is afoot on Texas 130. Small change.

The problem, as many readers have pointed out over the past couple of years, is that too few truckers decide to use the tollway and too many still go through Austin on Interstate 35. The hope, when construction started in 2003, was that many truckers would decide their time was worth the $26 toll (trucks pay much more than cars on this and other turnpikes) to go around Austin on Texas 130 and companion tollway Texas 45 Southeast.

I-35 still has more than 20 times as many big rigs on it as Texas 130. Texas Department of Transportation officials, in a Getting There column several months ago, said they could legally lower truck tolls but weren't actively pursuing it. Now they are.

TxDOT tollway Director Mark Tomlinson told the Texas Transportation Commission last week that a study showed that if truck tolls were 25 percent lower, truck traffic on Texas 130 would go up 33 percent and revenue would be unchanged. A 50 percent decrease, while jacking up 18-wheeler volume by about 51 percent, the study showed, would cut revenue by $4,600 a day.

Tomlinson recommended a 25 percent decrease in truck tolls.

The commission sounded interested, but this may not happen for a few months because of procedural hurdles. However, even if it does, I-35 drivers shouldn't expect a huge change in the scenery.

The study indicates that the 25 percent lower toll would pull an additional 350 trucks a day to Texas 130. But I-35 at U.S. 183 in North Austin had 24,000 trucks a day in 2007. So the lower toll might remove less than 2 percent of I-35 truck traffic.

What isn't changing on Texas 130, at least not yet: car tolls, for perhaps five years. And the overall financial picture, painted mostly in shades of red.

The 2002 financial prospectus for investors who put $2.2 billion into Texas 130, Loop 1 and Texas 45 North showed initial toll rates unchanged until 2015, when a 50 percent increase was scheduled. Transportation commissioners have the power to raise rates before then, but they aren't talking publicly about doing so.

But they might be considering it privately. According to figures from TxDOT Chief Financial Officer James Bass, the three-road system has required $68 million in tax money to balance the books over the first three years.

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