Manor Expressway proves drivers are willing to pay for fast toll lanes

When Mike McLaughlin moved to Harris Branch in 2009, the reality of commuting on stoplight-ridden U.S. 290 hit him immediately.

“It was bad,” says McLaughlin, who works a few miles to the west at an office along Interstate 35. “Sometimes I ended up zigzagging around the (landfill) and coming out on Springdale Road to avoid the lights. It was kind of a crapshoot.”

So when construction of tollway lanes down the middle of the U.S. 290 corridor ended in May 2014, McLaughlin, state executive director of the Knights of Columbus, didn’t hesitate. He takes the toll road every morning — costing him about 50 cents one way for the single toll gantry he passes under — and sometimes on the way home.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “It saves me about 10, 15 minutes to go to work.”

McLaughlin is far from alone, based on just over a year of toll figures from the 6.2-mile, six-lane highway. As such, the tollway has given early evidence that many people are willing to pay for a faster ride even when there is a spacious, free alternative right alongside. The U.S. 290 East tollway is flanked by six nontolled frontage lanes, interrupted by traffic signals at about a half-dozen places, much like what highway planners have in mind for U.S. 183 in East Austin in a $750 million project due to begin next year.

U.S. 290 East, what the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (its builder and operator) calls the Manor Expressway, has averaged about 63,350 toll transactions each weekday over the past three months. That’s about 30 percent more than the tolls charged in the same three months of 2014, and 54 percent ahead of the 41,100 transactions a day predicted for 2015 in a 2011 traffic and revenue study done before construction.

Toll transaction counts are typically much larger than actual traffic counts because a vehicle often passes two or more tolling points during a single trip. In August, about 24,650 vehicles a day passed under the toll gantry near Giles Road and, at the tollway’s eastern end, about 16,400 vehicles a day went under the tolling point near Parmer Lane.

U.S. 290, in traffic counts taken in 2008 and 2009 before construction of the tollway began, had about 38,000 vehicles a day at Giles and 29,000 a day close to Parmer. That’s almost twice as much as the current traffic on the toll lanes at Giles and Parmer.

But officials with the mobility authority say that based on their own observations of the toll road, about 40 percent of those driving the U.S. 290 corridor in that interval — roughly between U.S. 183 and Parmer Lane — are using the toll lanes, with the other 60 percent on the frontage roads. Consultant URS, in the traffic and revenue study, had predicted about one-third would take the toll option.

The mobility authority, which spent more than $450 million to build the U.S. 290 tollway (including engineering, right-of-way and oversight costs), has benefited from a strong economy generally in Texas as well as a rebirth of development in the metro area’s northeastern quadrant.

“If we were sitting in Detroit, this wouldn’t look like this,” said Bill Chapman, the mobility authority’s finance chief. “It’s a good market in Austin.”

Toll revenue is another story

Despite the stronger than expected usage of the road, however, the road is not operating in the black, and it might not be for some time.

Tolls brought in about $14.3 million in the past 12 months, according to mobility authority statistics. But the road is expected to have about $1.7 million in operating expenses this year, and the agency is making annual payments of about $22.6 million on $376 million borrowed through a 2011 bond sale. The debt service will bump up to about $27 million in 2023.

Such operating deficits are not unusual in a toll road’s early years, what the industry calls the “ramp-up” period. With that in mind, the agency borrowed more on the bond market than was necessary to build the project, stockpiling money to subsidize the toll revenue and make the payments in the first few years. The project also cost at least $18 million less to build than estimated when the agency decided how much to borrow on the bond market, Chapman said, so that money is likewise available to tap for the early shortfalls.

It is not clear from mobility authority documents when U.S. 290 is expected to take in more in tolls than its operating and debt service costs. The U.S. 290 East tollway is paired, in financial terms, with the 183A tollway in Cedar Park and Leander, which opened in 2007 and is likewise seeing heavier-than-expected traffic. Chapman said the two-road system over the past year cleared about $4.5 million after paying operating expenses and debt service.

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