Disabled veterans, Purple Heart recipients and a smaller cadre of elite medal recipients likely will be able to drive free, beginning this fall, on several more Central Texas toll roads.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board, which for nine years has resisted such a program because of the potential financial impact on the heavily leveraged agency, will consider the toll waivers at a meeting late this month. Officials indicated to the American-Statesman that the measure almost certainly will be approved and likely will take effect sometime in October.
Based on recommendations from the mobility authority staff, though, the toll waivers would include several caveats that could further muddle a somewhat confusing situation for veterans who qualify for the program.
The waiver would apply to the 183-A, U.S. 290 East and Texas 71 tollways, all of them operated by the mobility authority, and bring to seven the number of area tollways free to those veterans; the Texas Department of Transportation has had a similar policy since December 2012 for Texas 130 north of Mustang Ridge, Texas 45 North, Texas 45 Southeast and northern Loop 1.
But the authority’s staff recommends that the toll waiver not include the MoPac Boulevard express toll lanes, which run from near Lady Bird Lake to Parmer Lane. Officials say that because those lanes have varying toll rates based to a great degree on usage at any given time, allowing some to drive free would drive up rates for everyone else.
“This is the best we think we can do at this point,” said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority.
The authority currently allows free use of the MoPac toll lanes only for first responders (police, fire and ambulances), transit buses and van pool vehicles registered with Capital Metro.
The mobility authority staff proposes to allow free tolls for just one vehicle for each qualifying veteran, who must have an electronic toll tag on his vehicle and have resolved any unpaid tolls owed to the authority. The TxDOT program offers free tolls for any vehicle that has a designated license plate for a disabled veteran, a Purple Heart recipient, a Medal of Honor recipient or a Legion of Valor member, who all receive military-designated license plates for free. TxDOT also does not have the toll tag requirement.
The TxDOT program, in theory, limits the free tolls to only when the qualifying veteran is in the car, but that stipulation is unenforceable with current toll technology. TxDOT, according to mobility authority officials, forgoes about 2.4 percent of its toll revenue because of the veteran toll waiver.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority expects a lighter financial hit, mostly because of the one-vehicle limitation. Tracie Brown, the authority’s director of operations, told the board in May that the expected loss of toll revenue would be about $1 million in the first year, rising to $2.5 million in 2025. The agency, in the fiscal year that ends June 30, expects to have about $61 million in toll revenue from electronic toll tags this year, along with an additional $14.4 million from pay-by-mail tolls.
State Rep. Tony Dale, a Cedar Park Republican, has pushed the mobility authority to offer the toll waiver, saying his district has a significant population of veterans. In 2009, the Legislature approved a bill, signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry, that allowed toll agencies statewide to waive the tolls but did not require it.
A year later, the mobility authority board passed a resolution expressing support for the new law, but it also stated the agency should approve the toll waivers only after the Legislature approved funding to defray the cost. That state support has never materialized, but nonetheless local toll authorities around the state have moved to put such policies into place on their own dime.
“I renewed their interest in it,” Dale said. “I was not pleased that the CTRMA was the only toll agency in the state that did not waive tolls for veterans. … I’m cautiously optimistic that in the near future, the (authority) will offer these discounts.”
Dale, an Army veteran who retired as a captain in 1997 and now is a major in the Texas State Guard, would not qualify for free tolls under the proposed policy.
Mark Ayotte, who represents Williamson County on the mobility authority board, has been working with Dale on the policy. He said he supports exempting MoPac, at least initially.
“I’m in favor of a program that will succeed out of the gate,” Ayotte said. “Start with something that’s achievable and doable, and have the option later on to add to it.”
Along with MoPac, all veterans still will have to pay tolls for driving on Texas 130 south of Texas 45 Southeast, a 40-mile section that was built by a private consortium under a 50-year lease agreement with TxDOT.
Qualifying for free tolls
Statewide, about 303,000 vehicles have the specific military plates that make a driver eligible for free tolls. That’s about 1.2 percent of the total registered vehicles in Texas.
The chart below shows the total number of registered veterans in Travis, Williamson and Bastrop counties who may travel toll-free on some Central Texas roads. According to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, nine veterans in the state are registered as Medal of Honor recipients, none in Travis, Williamson or Bastrop counties.
Purple Heart recipient;473;429;86
Legion of Valor member;0;1;0
Source: Texas Department of Motor Vehicles