Toll roads

Talk of toll roads have been much in the air around Austin lately, after CAMPO proposed a plan to convert segments of almost every area highway into a toll road.

Proposed tollroads map

(source: CAMPO “Adopted Tollroads Amendments.” Click for larger version)

My visceral reaction to this was negative, which surprised me: I’ve always been in favor of less driving, less sprawl, and honest road-pricing. Toll roads are consistent with all of these goals. So I decided to give the matter more thought, and I’m still against it in this case. Why?

Tolls seem to be imposed for one of a few reasons: to ration access to overused facilities (Singapore and London have applied road-pricing to downtown roads), to pay for expensive infrastructure, such as bridges, and as a general revenue-enhancement trick. The first two of these are reasonable, the last is unsurprising but infuriating. None of these apply to the current plan, except for the third, in an oblique way.

Although this plan issues from CAMPO, it benefits the Texas Department of Transportation. CAMPO is acting as TxDOT’s fall-guy. It is important to understand a few things about TxDOT:

  1. TxDOT does not exist primarily to improve general transportation in Texas: if it doesn’t involve new-road construction, they’re not particularly interested.
  2. TxDOT does not exist to maximize road-transport efficiency in Texas: they are really the Texas Department of Corporate Welfare for Construction Companies.
  3. TxDOT is the only state or local organization that takes planning seriously. Unfortunately, their planning reflects their warped perspectives. Other state and local agencies take their planning cues from TxDOT.

In most cases where toll roads are introduced, there’s a toll-free alternative. The CAMPO plan is no exception: new segments of non-tolled roads will be built alongside the tolled sections to be introduced. In other words, TxDOT gets to build more roads. So this is a boondoggle. It also means we’ll have the environmental fights over more green land getting paved over–in theory, this means there might not be untolled alternatives to the tolled sections. Assuming there are, though, one wonders how many people will use the toll roads. And the whole project promises to be expensive: $1.7 billion. Perhaps the tolls will pay for that. I wonder.

Another reason is the bait-n-switch feeling the plan leaves in my mouth. Although I live in central Austin, and live most of my life in central Austin, even I find myself increasingly dragged to the fringes of the city because that’s where so much retail has moved to. Austin, for worse (definitely not for better) has grown up with a sprawl-oriented model of development, and everyone who lives here (short of Amy Babich) in some way must accommodate that. Now CAMPO tells us, now that we’ve been suckered into this topology, that we’ll have to pay for that trip out to the Salt Lick, down to my friend’s place in Oak Hill, over to the bike store on 360, out to the UPS station.

Finally, most people don’t like pay-as-you-go. We don’t want to think about the money being taken away from us each time we use a service: we’d rather pay a big upfront fee (even if it’s more than we’d otherwise pay) and not have to worry about it after that. While some moderation in road use would certainly be a good thing, demand for the roads is probably more inelastic than a smoker’s demand for cigs.

8 thoughts on “Toll roads”

  1. I’d have to be on the flip side from Mike, the supposed current system of gas taxes would be perfectly acceptable to most motorists, as, if you didn’t drive (i.e. rode a bicycle) you would never have to pay for the roads. Unfortunately the gas tax system has been politicized so that it pays for things other than roads. Because of siphoning the money to other uses, TxDOT claims “its broke” and shoves toll road pork down the citizens throats. Partial article below, full article at:

    To Toll or Not to Toll?

    Is that even the right question?

    M.J. Taylor

    To toll or not to toll? Is that even the right question? It’s certainly the question of the day, but what got us to the point of even asking it? What I’ve heard most as to why the CAMPO board voted “yes” to tolls is, “We would losing federal funding.”

    So, dear elected representatives: Where was the representation that let it get to that point? Why? Why did you let it get to the point you had to vote yes to something 90+% of your constituents clearly don’t want?

    Let’s look at the money then, since it’s claimed “funding” is what caused you to vote against the wishes of the citizens:

    The 20 cent per gallon Texas gas tax hasn’t changed, so where is that money now going?

    The 18.4 cent per gallon federal gas tax hasn’t changed, so where is that money now going?

    The number of cars register has increased, where is that extra money going?

    City of Austin utility bill includes almost $10 for road-related items, where is that money going?

    It boils down to this: The tax revenue from vehicles has increased as more vehicles exist and these vehicles consume more fuel. So if our taxes have kept up with inflation and population growth, as seems to be the case, where has the money gone?

    Okay, I’m guessing that question is a little too nebulous for you to answer. So, lets visit some numbers, and then maybe ask it again.

    – Money collected from the Texas gas tax (1): $100 mil

    – Money collected from the federal gas tax (2): $93 mil

    – Money collected for vehicle registration (3): $44 mil

    – Money collected from Austin Energy (4): $3.5 mil

    – Money collected for CapMetro: $139 mil

    – Cost per person for the Toll Plan (5): $5,250

    (w/ interest $10,450)

    Full article at:

  2. MJ:

    Far more non-gas-tax money goes to the roads than gas-tax-money goes to non-roads. The state gas tax here in TX is constitutionally obligated to 1/4 schools and 3/4 highways (not local roads – only roads with the shields).

    Far more money comes from local property/sales taxes directly to road construction/maintenance (even in the form of contributions for state highways – not just big roads like Lamar and Guadalupe, but also US 183 and SH 45).

  3. Great article, Adam. I agree that in other cases toll roads are a fair way to address traffic problems, but this plan is not fair and really doesn’t address traffic issues in Austin at all. This is a plan to turn our roads into revenue-generation machines shaking-down Austinites to pay for roads elsewhere – and contributing significantly to sprawl in the process.

  4. Why does the toll on the toll roads have to be pernament? Why can’t we use bonds to fund the roads and then have the bonds be paid off by the tolls. When the road is paid off the toll is removed and it becomes a free road. They have done this several times in Florida. This allows for all those people who pass through Austin (trucks from Mexico) to pay for the road.

    The only major problem is getting them to remove the toll, once the road has been paid off.

  5. Well, one problem with that logic, James, is that they’re talking about tolling existing roads–roads that were paid for decades ago. Of course, they’d need to pay for the new construction to add the toll plazas and untolled side-roads, but that’s obviously a circular problem. The other problem is that these tolls will not hit truckers on I-35 (which would remain untolled) but would hit all the commuter highways in the area. As you might understand if you had actually read my post.

    There is a toll road under construction, SH130, that’s supposed to be an I-35 bypass. By TxDOT’s own estimate, this will reduce traffic on I-35 by 4%. Hardly worth the trouble, and a sprawl-generating boondoggle all around.

  6. Toll Roads should be our last, most desperate option, not THE model for the future.

    The CTRMA, a board of good ole’ fat cats appointed by the Governor of Texas, under the direct control of the GOP and Tom DeLay, who personally gives out orders to the faithful party members.

    First, the passed an Amendment to allow Texas, for the first time in history, to go into debt to build future roads. I’m the first to admit it – I WAS fooled. I TRUSTED my state government to use that authority carefully. But, in hind sight, it was like giving a drunk teenager the keys to the family car and ice cold six-pack at the same time.

    The worst lie, however, was to come out of the local Road Mobility Authroities (RMA’s, or in our case, the Central Texas RMA). The spend our tax dollars to advertise and promote their own ideas (highly questionable if that’s a legal expense, too) that touted a solution to our traffice problems. They said that building new roads in Austin would releive Traffic Congestion.

    CAMPO, our regional Mobiliy Planning Organization, was challenged, again and again, in public hearing, public meetings, and when the came to the local neighborhoods, to explain how more highways would relieve traffic congestion. They tried, over and over, to suggest that it was just obvious !! IT IS NOT !

    In a CAMPO meeting I attended in September 2004, Mike Aulick, the principle Toll Road Project Manager, not only admitted that Toll Roads were never likely to reduce traffic congestion, but he included an article from the New Yorker, that touted the same conclusion.

    More lanes are only going to give us new places to line our cars in worse gridlock. More roads can’t fix the infrastructure problems of too few bridges over Town Lake, too many critical choke point, too few car poolers, and no real option for alternative transportation.

    Yes, we do have a few bus routes, but they are underutilized and hardly efficient ways to get back and forth from work. They are impossible to use for daily shopping trips. And riding a bike in Austin traffic is simply too dangerous and impractical.

    What we need is a fundamental culture change. We need massive spending on Mass Transit systems, not just a rail through East Austin, but some real limits on cars going into downtown. Raise the parking rates to $3/hr minimum and enforce the 2 hour limit. Build HOV lanes, build some safe bike routes that don’t put rider in danger of getting killed by cars and trucks, and do something to get soccer moms to stop driving their children school in their SUVs. We, the tax payers, provide safe and effective buses.

    Parents should not be allowed to drop of their own kids unless no bus is available. Instead, they will sit in traffic jams in every neigborhood in Austin, waiting sometimes for 10-20 mintues to drop off or pickup a kid. They the go clog up the highways we use at rush hour.

    I think a rail system is a good idea, but it serves too few people, no matter how fast you build it. I think we need Monorails overhead. Not the big ones like the use at Disneyworld, the small scalled units that carry 8 people at a time. They use a realatively small rail, only have to be 16-22 feet in the air, the are silent, and they can be built fast, using minimal right of way, alleys, and attached to existing bridges. Better yet, they can be built into a network that has many more stops around the city, easily beating a bus route, because they have no traffic to wait on.

    Smart Buses are another idea, buses that have some priority at traffic lights is a good idea, but I can’t believe it costs and extra $30,000 per bus !? And, why not put WiFi in all the buses and light rail cars ? Finally, you can do something more than yak on that cell phone during your commute !!

    Russ Hodes

    Texas People for Efficient Transportation.

    We are DOING something about this Toll Road Abuse

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