02.01.08

Our Topsy-Turvy Toll Roads

Posted in Central Texas, Commentary, Privatization, Road Issues, Williamson County at 11:16 am by wcnews

Ben Wear has a couple of articles this week on the approval of Video tolling for 183-A. This is just another step in what has been a learning experience for toll road drivers, and the process of getting them to buy toll tags.

It’s a given that those building, planning, and profiting from the toll roads in Central Texas would prefer there to be no actual money, aka cash, used to pay for tolls. The less drivers have to “go through the motions” of actually seeing their money being spent on tolls, the better. They want to make paying for toll roads as unseen as possible. So much so that drivers forget they’re even paying tolls. This recent brouhaha is not so much about getting video tolling on 183-A as it is about getting rid of cash tolls all together and making every driver buy a toll tag.

When the first toll roads (SH 130 and SH 45) were opened in the Austin/Williamson County area last year we were told there were three ways to pay - toll tag, cash, and video tolling. There was a big deal made of the fact that if a driver didn’t have cash, or a toll tag it was no problem. Just drive on through, they’ll take a picture of you license plate, and send you a bill in the mail, of course the driver would also pay an increased toll for this convenience. In essence the drivers in the area were conditioned to the fact that you didn’t need cash or a toll tag to drive on the new toll roads.

Then came 183-A the first toll road built by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), and everything changed. Some toll booths had cash, some didn’t. And those that didn’t, instead of using “video tolling” when someone drove through without paying, they put in a cumbersome and expensive toll collection process.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which says it has had an 8 percent to 11 percent violation rate at the 183-A main Park Street toll plaza (and double that at the all-electronic toll point near Lakeline Mall), wants to crack down on what it says are more than a thousand serial violators, vehicle owners who have driven on the road without paying dozens of times. Those drivers are ignoring the agency’s violation notices and the $5 fines for each notice, even though doing so triggers a collection effort that gets progressively more expensive for the violator and could end up putting the toll scofflaw in front of a judge.

[…]

Starting at 6 a.m. Monday, Cedar Park police (who are under a $204,000-a-year contract with the mobility authority to police 183-A, which runs 4.5 miles from Texas 45 North to RM 1431) began pulling over some people who didn’t pay at the Park Street toll plaza. The Park Street plaza has tollbooths for cash payers and, on the main lanes of the road, electronic readers that pick up toll tags and debit the tag holders’ accounts. Pustelnyk said that spot was chosen over the all-electronic plaza to the south because drivers without tags cannot argue that they had no opportunity to pay at Park Street.

When a driver with no tag goes through the tag-only main lanes, a light flashes to record the event. The waiting police officers, alerted by the light, pull over the car.

If the computer in a squad car tells an officer that the car pulled over has had four or more violations, the driver will get a $210 citation. The authority will get $25 of that, and the tolls, with the rest going to Cedar Park and the State of Texas for the fees and fines normally associated with moving violations. The four-or-more rule will apply, [mobility authority spokesman Steve] Pustelnyk said, even to people who have paid the fines for previous violations.

Sal at The Muckraker pointed the bad economics of this process from a recent KXAN story:

According to the authority (CTRMA), roughly $150,000 is collected in fines and tolls from those violators every month, but it costs almost that much, $135,000, to do it.

As Sal said, “That’s a shocking amount of money per month!” Did they put in place a flawed system to bring about the no cash system? That bad return on their money and another push to sell toll tags is what’s driving this.

“We’d prefer them to get a TxTag,” authority spokesman Steve Pustelnyk said. “TxTag is always going to be the most efficient way to pay.”

Already, Pustelnyk said, about 85 percent of the people driving the road have toll tags, a high percentage for American tollways. But the problem is that the toll plaza near Lakeline Mall was not made wide enough to have cash booths. The result, especially for northbound drivers, is that many have found themselves driving illegally on that section, without a toll tag.

It’s hard to believe that would have been an accident. But when tolls go up, and a driver no longer has to toss in that extra quarter at the toll booth, or drivers don’t notice that they’re burning through dollar bills much quicker then you used to, they will be less likely to notice when tolls increase. With a toll tag the bill goes up $10 a month and most people won’t notice that for a while and once they do….oh well.

It’s important to know that these roads were not built for the driver’s convenience. If that happens to be a by-product that’s a nice side effect as far as the tollers are concerned. These roads have always been, first and foremost, about making money for tollers, landowners, and developers.

It’s also important to understand that there are many, many issues with these new tolls roads. There were the stories of random double charging, that weren’t being reported by the tolling agencies, but by drivers. And the money only being returned when the drivers caught the extra charges - can you says free money?! Sal has much more. Here’s a story EOW was told recently:

I received a bill for $1.60 for “video tolling”. I called and pointed out that a guy was servicing the exact change machine in the cash lane at the moment I drove up. I tossed in my $0.50, but the light stayed red. The toll guy pushed a button and the light turned green, so I drove through. I called the service center last night and explained this, and they took the charge away!

More free money. Most drivers will probably just pay these “accidental” over charges. A story like this is probably not uncommon, or else why would they just take someone’s word for it? There are many other issues with these roads. I’ve heard countless drivers make observations about the access road lights being timed to frustrate drivers and make them want to enter the toll road. That is if they can find a convenient entrance because the design most times is not logical for traffic flow, but optimized for toll charges. There are the inane design flaws as well, flyovers that weren’t built, and the changing story as to why they weren’t built initially. And there’s been no sign they will be built any time soon. And anyone who drives i-35 or MOPAC at rush hour(s) knows these roads have done little, if anything, to fix the traffic problems. As has been stated before all they’ve done is allowed drivers to get to the gridlock faster.

So we’ve lived more than a year with toll roads and much has changed, little if anything for the better. Not to worry though, county commissioner Lisa Birkman and the CTRMA want to bring more of these “well run” toll roads to Williamson County.

Just imagine if every highway, interstates included, in Texas have tolls on them. Scary, I know. What EOW has said many times and will continue to say is that toll roads cannot, and should not, be the only answer to our transportation issues. Toll roads work best as a minor support piece, of an overall transportation system funded with a broad-based gas tax. The gas tax desperately needs to be increased statewide (by 10 cents or so) and indexed to inflation.

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