Once again, state officials are looking to the east to provide relief for commuters on Interstate 35.
The Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday will consider a pilot program that will discount the tolls for truckers on the northern half of Texas 130, with the goal of diverting some of the semitrailers off I-35.
A similar trial run in 2013 showed that lowering truck tolls on Texas 130 east of Austin would move as many as 1,000 big rigs a day off I-35, a small but appreciable piece of the interstate’s congested traffic through the heart of town. In 2014, 216,000 vehicles a day crossed Lady Bird Lake on I-35.
But that earlier nine-month experiment did not persuade the Texas Department of Transportation and its legislative overseers to make the discounts permanent. Doing so would reduce toll revenue from Texas 130 by at least $19 million a year, depending on how deeply the discounts are and whether they apply 24/7.
The pilot program coming to the Transportation Commission on Thursday would last almost 16 months and cost $18.7 million in forgone tolls. The program, which has the blessing of the 2015 Legislature, would apply to 49 miles of Texas 130, from Georgetown to Mustang Ridge, and to the Texas 45 Southeast tollway, which connects Texas 130 to I-35 near Buda.
“It’s not all we asked for,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who carried legislation in 2015 seeking about twice that much to subsidize truck toll discounts. “But it gets us more data, and it will help us determine how you change the behavior of truckers who don’t need to stop in Travis County.”
Currently, 18-wheelers pay tolls that are three times what two-axle cars and trucks pay. For trucks with a toll tag, that’s $24.12 to bypass Georgetown, Round Rock and Austin by taking Texas 130 and Texas 45 Southeast. Two-axle vehicles with a toll tag pay $8.04 for that 56-mile trip. Vehicles and trucks without a toll tag get bills in the mail and pay a third more.
The proposed discount program would apply only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays. The discounts would come in two phases.
From April 18 to Oct. 31, all trucks with four or more axles — 18-wheelers typically have five or more axles — would pay twice the car rate, which would be $16.08 for those with the toll tag or $21.39 without.
Then from Nov. 1 through Aug. 31, 2017, big rigs with a toll tag would pay the same $8.04 rate as cars. Large trucks with no toll tag would continue to get the first phase discount price of $21.39.
The discounts for tag holders in that second phase will duplicate the toll cuts in the 2013 pilot program, except that those discounts applied 24/7. Truck traffic on Texas 130 increased 44 percent, about 1,000 trucks a day, during that program.
More than 25,000 big rigs a day take I-35 through Austin, about 12 percent of the highway’s overall traffic in the city. So a loss of 1,000 trucks a day would be about 4 percent of truck traffic and about a half percent of overall traffic on I-35 in Austin.
TxDOT officials say that at least 80 percent of the trucks on I-35 have business in Austin and would be unlikely to detour well out of the way to use Texas 130.
“Even if you made it toll-free for trucks, you would not move all the trucks” off I-35, Watson said. “This only impacts a small percentage: those that have no reason to stop or originate in Travis County.”
Texas 130, and companion tollways Loop 1 and Texas 45 North, were financed primarily by TxDOT borrowing $2.2 billion from bond investors. The debt payments remain the same no matter what toll TxDOT charges, and the toll system is not running in the black, so lost revenue has to be made up somehow.
But officials said the two phases, with different reductions and a distinction between tag holders and those who pay by mail, will give them information about what might persuade truckers to use Texas 130 on a regular basis. Aside from the toll cost, the Texas 130/Texas 45 Southeast bypass is 12 miles longer than going straight through Austin and Round Rock on I-35, adding fuel expense.