The number of big rigs using the Texas 130 tollway has jumped almost 57 percent in the eight days since tolls for multi-axle vehicles were cut by two-thirds, Texas Department of Transportation officials said Wednesday.
Cars and pickups also are using the toll road in greater numbers, compared with the same period a year ago, even though tolls for those vehicles are unchanged, said James Bass, TxDOT’s chief financial officer.
But it’s not clear what effect the month-long pilot program is having on revenue from the 49-mile road and connecting tollway Texas 45 Southeast, officials said, or if the Texas Transportation Commission will make the truck toll discount permanent.
In any case, the number of trucks choosing the toll roads over Interstate 35 is small compared to 20,000 or so 18-wheelers that use I-35 in Austin everyday.
The lower truck tolls, which are the same as those charged to cars and pickups, do not apply to the new section of Texas 130 south of Mustang Ridge, operated by a private company under a long-term lease with TxDOT.
In the eight days beginning Feb. 4, Texas 130 saw 92,832 toll “transactions” involving multi-axle vehicles, or about 11,604 a day. A transaction, that is, a toll charge, happens each time a vehicle passes through a tolling station and most vehicles will rack up two or more on one trip.
For the same period in 2012, there were 59,260 toll transactions involving big rigs on Texas 130, or 7,407 a day. TxDOT officials, given that a truck would be hit with four transactions if it travels the entire 49 miles of TxDOT’s section of Texas 130 between Georgetown and Mustang Ridge, could not say how many actual trucks that transaction difference represents.
“Anything we can move over (from I-35) is of real value,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.
TxDOT officials, during the experiment’s first eight days, have seen a more modest increase in car traffic on Texas 130. And toll rates on the road were raised 25 percent Jan. 1, so overall revenue might be comparable to the same period in 2012. In any case, TxDOT officials will have to decide if the safety, air quality and traffic congestion improvements on parallel I-35 are worth a possible loss of revenue from lowered tolls.
TxDOT, when Texas 130 first opened in 2006, charged five-axle vehicles four times what cars pay, or $21.60 for the length of the road if the truck had an electronic toll tag. Paying by cash (no longer an option as of Jan. 1) or by mail is more expensive for all vehicles. The transportation commission two years ago lowered the multi-axle toll to three times the car rate, generating a modest increase of truck traffic on Texas 130.
TxDOT conducted a month-long pilot in late 2011 and early 2012 identical to the one underway — all vehicles paid the lower two-axle toll rate — and saw truck usage increase by a similar 50 percent compared to the same period the year before. Car usage, even though tolls remained unchanged for that class of vehicles, went up 10.6 percent. However, in the two weeks prior to that price cut, car traffic was already up 6.5 percent, so the actual effect during the pilot was only a few percentage points.
During the current pilot period, Bass said that car transactions are up 22.6 percent, from 83,800 a day in February 2012 to about 102,700 now. However, traffic was already up more than 16 percent in January, before the rate cut, so the added increase is effectively less than 7 percent.
Why would more car drivers take Texas 130 when the price hasn’t changed for them? Bass pointed to electronic message signs advertising the truck price cut that have been installed north of where Texas 130 intersects I-35 near Georgetown, and south of the Texas 45 Southeast/I-35 junction near Buda. Truck tolls have also been temporarily lowered on Texas 45 Southeast.
“Bypass congestion f0r $11 or less,” an electronic sign near Buda tells northbound drivers.