And then there were eight.
Toll roads. In Central Texas.
Starting sometime Tuesday, probably just before the evening rush hour, highway crews will remove some cones and other barriers and open the 3-mile-long Texas 71 tollway. Making that unobstructed trip between Presidential Boulevard and Onion Creek east of Texas 130 — flying above three traffic signals that have made that trip miserable at rush hour for years — will cost 87 cents for those with toll tags on their vehicles, and $1.16 for non-tag-holders who pay by mail.
The $140 million project, including one to two toll lanes in each direction and elimination of FM 973’s troublesome dogleg at Texas 71, has taken the Texas Department of Transportation just over two years to finish. Well, to mostly finish; crews will come back in a few weeks when the weather is warmer to repave and restripe sections of the toll lanes, and the free lanes alongside. That work will take place overnight, with lane closures between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., and shouldn’t take long.
But as anyone who drives Texas 71 can see, there is ample other auxiliary work left to do: cleaning up the messy construction area under Texas 130 and the new toll bridge; completing a concrete path on the north side of Texas 71; removing several large piles of soil; landscaping various embankments and areas alongside the highway; and placing an overhead sign near the airport. It’s unclear when all that will be done.
But the tollway will be there, clearing up one other Austin bottleneck. Those headed to Bastrop will still run into traffic signals at Ross Road and Kellam Road, and other points on the way to Bastrop. So there’s much work to be done before the driver dream of a freeway all the way to Houston materializes. But TxDOT, which in March likely will set aside $138 million for five new overpasses along Texas 71 in Travis and Bastrop counties, is headed that way.
So, we have eight Central Texas tollways, and more on the way. Specifically, three under construction and four in the planning stages (including toll lanes on Interstate 35), for a total of 15 around here sometime in the next decade. That would be more than 200 miles of toll roads, up from zero in greater Austin just before Halloween 2006. Scary.
The state, overall, as of October had 36 operating tollways and 15 under construction, along with 28 toll bridges (most of those along the border over the Rio Grande) and one toll tunnel.
All this brought to mind a key date in Austin transportation history: April 12, 2004. On that day, TxDOT’s then-district engineer Bob Daigh unveiled a $2.2 billion plan for nine Central Texas toll roads, on top of the three that were already under construction at the time.
The number was fairly breathtaking, coming at a point when area drivers had never had to pay to drive around here. A predictable uproar followed as officials with TxDOT and the then-infant Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority pushed to have those nine proposed tollways quickly amended into the area’s long-range transportation plan. Hundreds showed up at a public hearing on the plan at the LBJ Library Auditorium, and almost all of them were against it. Stridently against it.
Part of the problem was that the plan included two projects that were already under construction as free-to-drive roads: Texas 71 from I-35 to Riverside Drive (being upgraded from a four-lane road with stoplights to the freeway you drive on now) and a South MoPac Boulevard overpass at William Cannon Drive. “Double taxation,” critics charged, given that gasoline taxes were being used for the upgrades on those two roads.
Loop 360 was also on that list to the tune of $500 million to make it a tollway with free frontage roads, potentially carving out more of the surrounding cliffs to make room. Neighborhoods along the road lobbied hard against that one too.
By July 2004, when the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board voted on the plan, those three roads had fallen out of the plan, and those sections of Texas 71 and South MoPac don’t have tolls today. Loop 360, meanwhile, has languished with little change and grinding commute-time congestion at its many traffic signals.
But in the years since, six more toll projects have surfaced, including the piece of Texas 71 opening Tuesday.
Which, by the way, was built with no borrowed money. That’s supposedly what tolls were conceived to do: pay off debt.
TxDOT, which will hand off the road to the mobility authority to operate, built it using $80 million from a concession payment that Spanish toll road builder Cintra sent to TxDOT for the right to build the southern 40 miles of Texas 130. The rest came from general TxDOT cash.
The mobility authority will pay back TxDOT up to $65 million of that, giving it half of net revenue operations and maintenance expenses. Based on a traffic and revenue study done on Texas 71 in 2013, that “debt” to TxDOT will likely be satisfied by about 2030. After that, the mobility authority gets to keep it all.
Over time, the Texas 71 tollway likely will spin off millions of dollars a year (something like $15 million in 2035, and rising) for the mobility authority, money that can be used to pay off debt on the agency’s other tollways or as seed money for still more toll roads.
But Texas 71 isn’t the only Central Texas tollway built without incurring bond debt. Texas 45 Southeast’s $220 million cost was funded with TxDOT cash while Texas 45 Southwest (now under construction by the mobility authority at a cost of just $100 million) was made possible by TxDOT grants and loans as well as taxpayer dollars from Travis and Hays counties. And the $200 million or so needed to build the MoPac express lane project (which should open sometime this summer) likewise came from TxDOT grants.
None of which means, necessarily, that the projects shouldn’t have been built or funded that way. Local and state transportation officials over the past 15 years have been trying to build hugely expensive projects to address the area’s unprecedented population and traffic growth in a constantly changing fiscal environment. They scratched the money together in various ways, doing what was politically possible at any given time.
And, in a couple of decades, those 14 tollways are likely to be producing a lot more money in tolls than it takes to pay off debt and maintain the roads. Harris County, which has had toll roads since the 1980s, for many years has been using toll surpluses to build other transportation projects.
Who knows? Perhaps at that point (or even before) some of that spare transportation cash could be used for passenger rail.