Officials: Toll roads may be key to Texas’ economic growth


A four-letter word — toll — must re-enter the state’s political vocabulary if Texas is to solve its serious traffic congestion problems that are only getting worse because of continued rapid population growth, local business and civic leaders were told Wednesday.

“We don’t have sufficient funds to cover all of the (road transportation) needs in Texas” without resorting to tolls in some areas, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said during an Opportunity Austin event at the JW Marriott hotel.

Opportunity Austin is the economic development affiliate of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“Everybody in this room knows there is no room on our current road system” for all of the new vehicles anticipated to clog Texas highways in coming years, Watson said.

Watson made the comments after J. Bruce Bugg Jr., chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, told the group that his agency is in the early stages of exploring the possibility of prioritizing some available state road money for congestion-relief projects in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

The transportation commission axed tolls from its toolbox of potential road financing mechanisms late last year after Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, took anti-toll stances.

Bugg, who was appointed by Abbott, said Wednesday that preliminary discussions are underway regarding the possibility of using more than $4 billion annually in new tax money for roads — which Texas voters approved in referendums in 2014 and 2015 — on projects aimed at unclogging the top 100 congestion “choke points” across the state. Thirteen of the choke points are in the Austin area, he said, and 92 are in one of the five major metro areas.

If the new money is just deployed on the top 100 congested roadways, the commission is looking at “what effect that will have” statewide, Bugg said.

He added that his agency is “certainly mindful” that many other regions of Texas are experiencing traffic problems as well, which he said will be taken into consideration. “Congestion is not just an Austin problem or a problem in all these five major metropolitan areas — it’s a Texas problem,” he said.

Later Wednesday, Bugg’s commission heard a presentation on the idea during a previously scheduled work session. Bugg and other commissioners stressed that the presentation was for “discussion purposes only” because the plan is hypothetical, and they took no action on it.

Regardless, Watson said during the Opportunity Austin event that he doubts such a plan would fly statewide.

“Huge parts of the state will never see (road) money again” if the money from the 2014 and 2015 referendums are prioritized to the largest metro areas, Watson said. “That is going to create a policy problem in the state.”

Gary Farmer, chairman of Opportunity Austin 4.0 — the next iteration of the organization’s five-year economic development road map — agreed with Watson that tolls “absolutely” have to be part of the state’s congestion solution.

“Economic development (in Texas) is history if we don’t get new roads,” Farmer said in an interview after the event. “If we want to maintain a quality of life … we need to build these roads.”

He also disputed the notion that Texas residents are predominantly anti-toll, citing the estimated 1 million toll tags that have been issued in the Austin area.

“There’s only two types of roads — tax (funded) or tolls,” Farmer said. “The thing about toll roads (is) you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to.”

Also Wednesday, Opportunity Austin released its annual report for 2017, showing that it had spent about $4 million on economic development initiatives last year on about $3.8 million in revenue. The organization is wrapping up its five-year Opportunity Austin 3.0 road map — which covers 2014 through 2018 — and Treasurer Cindy Matula said it’s normal in later years for expenses to outstrip revenue.

Opportunity Austin is attempting to raise $30 million for its 4.0 plan that will run through 2023 and include a range of new programs, such as efforts to address transportation and affordability issues. For the 3.0 plan, Opportunity Austin raised about $21 million in 2013 out of a targeted $25 million.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Business

These Android phones have security defects out of the box
These Android phones have security defects out of the box

At least 25 Android smartphone models — 11 of which are sold by major U.S. carriers — carry vulnerabilities out of the box, making them easy prey for hackers, according to a new study from security researchers. Researchers from the firm Kryptowire found 38 vulnerabilities in 25 Android phones, according to Wired. They range from being able...
How to get data from one device to another

Q: I copied some photos from my camera’s memory card to a newly created folder on my two-year-old Surface Pro tablet PC, using a USB card reader. I could see the photos after I transferred them, but when I restarted the PC the photos were gone. I haven’t gotten any “low memory” warnings. What’s wrong? — Angie LaMere...
T-Mobile gets rid of robot system for customer service calls
T-Mobile gets rid of robot system for customer service calls

SEATTLE — T-Mobile is getting rid of that robotic voice on its customer service lines, the company announced recently. The telecom said it would connect users straight to a team of customer representatives, unique to their own city, when they call customer service. “ ‘Your call is important to us’ are the six emptiest words...
‘Magic: The Gathering Arena’ may finally get game right for video games
‘Magic: The Gathering Arena’ may finally get game right for video games

Despite pioneering the trading card game on paper, Wizards of the Coast has had a rough go of it in the digital space. “Magic: The Gathering Online” hasn’t had wild success mainly because of stability issues and accessibility. “Magic Duels” was better but it didn’t seem to take full advantage of the medium or capture...
Smart padlock protects front porch deliveries
Smart padlock protects front porch deliveries

The BoxLock is designed to prevent theft of delivery packages left by the front door. In addition to the anti-theft aspect, packages are protected from bad weather, which has victimized me. Nothing like having a box soaked in a thunderstorm, etc. The BoxLock smart padlock solves both these problems. According to BoxLock, this is the first of its kind...
More Stories