The proposed addition of toll lanes to U.S. 183 in Northwest Austin, already tenuous because of the increasing unpopularity of toll projects, has now become a bargaining chip in a lingering dispute over the road’s Cedar Park cousin.
Officials in the suburban area served by the 183-A tollway, including state Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, long have stewed over the road’s high toll rates and its lack of frontage roads for about a three-mile stretch between Avery Ranch Boulevard and RM 1431.
That chagrin, exacerbated in recent weeks by a technical glitch that led to tens of thousands of bills being wrongly sent to drivers with electronic toll tags on their vehicles, has now taken legislative form in House Bill 361, a Dale measure due to be heard Thursday by the House Transportation Committee.
The measure would prohibit a regional toll road agency from building any road projects as long as it has any toll road lacking “at least one adjacent nontolled lane of frontage road in each direction.”
Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority — which operates 183-A and hopes to add two toll lanes to each side of U.S. 183 in an 8-mile stretch just to the south — said there is already a free-to-drive alternative to 183-A: the original U.S. 183 off to the west, now known locally as Bell Boulevard. Although he said the authority is willing to talk about alternatives for Cedar Park drivers, Heiligenstein said adding frontage lanes to 183-A in that three-mile interval would be prohibitively expensive.
Dale is unsympathetic. His HB 361 applies only to that section of 183-A north of Avery Ranch. Were that bill to become law — unlikely at this point because it doesn’t fall under Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session call — the U.S. 183 toll project between North MoPac Boulevard and Texas 45 North would be stopped in its tracks.
So would a proposed 183-A extension to Liberty Hill, planned flyovers at U.S. 290 East and Texas 130, and the mobility authority’s plan to add toll lanes to South MoPac. Ongoing construction on three other mobility authority projects almost certainly wouldn’t be affected, officials said.
“The desire of my constituents is to have billing be accurate, and to not be taken advantage of by exorbitant tolls,” Dale told the American-Statesman on Wednesday. “I’m serious about this effort.”
Dale said he will carry with him to Thursday’s hearing resolutions passed by governing boards in Cedar Park, Leander, Round Rock and Williamson County calling for frontage roads to be added to 183-A between Avery Ranch and RM 1431. That section includes several hundred yards near Park Street where pavement is already in place because 183-A originally had toll booths there before becoming an all-electronic toll road shortly after its 2007 opening.
Park Street remains a toll point along the 10.7-mile tollway, one where those with a toll tag are charged $1.48 and drivers billed by mail have to pay $1.97. Those charges essentially buy motorists access to those three miles of 183-A, making the cost close to 50 cents per mile for those with a tag.
Driving TxDOT’s Texas 130, by contrast, costs less than 15 cents per mile. And driving the entire length of 183-A, at a cost of $3.08 for a tag holder, costs less than 30 cents a mile. The tollway south of Avery Ranch and north of RM 1431 has free frontage roads alongside as a handy competitor, while taking Bell Boulevard can add 10 minutes or more to the short trip to and from RM 1431.
“Many of our constituents believe that the CTRMA is taking advantage of them and overcharging for this segment,” Dale said in a July 31 letter to Gov. Greg Abbott. “That rate is among the highest tolls in the state, based upon the distance traveled.”
The uncertain status of the U.S. 183 toll project gives Dale leverage in the 183-A debate. The Texas Transportation Commission, which until last month had seemed ready to commit $120 million to the $650 million project to pay for some free lanes that would be added to U.S. 183 at the same time, is concerned that doing so might run afoul of Texas Constitution provisions. The commission has delayed a decision on U.S. 183 for an indefinite time.
Dale said Wednesday he has talked to Transportation Commission Chairman Tryon Lewis about his concerns on 183-A and the U.S. 183 toll project.