All you toll road haters, limber up your fingers for the flaming responses to this column.
Because the toll road story here in Central Texas that I’m about to tell you, based on usage and revenue, is a good news story. The simple fact is that the nine toll roads here, other than the privately run section of Texas 130 south of Mustang Ridge, are being heavily used and are financially healthy.
This is certainly not the uniform case around the country, where a number of toll roads in the past decade have gone bankrupt. In Central Texas, well over 1 million TxTags have been issued, and traffic on the eight government-operated tollways is consistently growing and performing above projections. And in a region that for years has been showing up on national lists of fastest-growing areas — and high on other lists of traffic congestion — this makes sense.
But even with that growth and snarled traffic, it wasn’t a certainty 15 years ago that Austin-area drivers in great numbers would use tollways. Early last decade, when the first of them were under construction, something called the Austin Toll Party formed and there was a lot of passionate opposition to the idea that driving on a road would carry a charge.
Then the first of the tollways opened in late 2006 and people saw the uncluttered lanes. Attitudes quickly changed.
This came up Wednesday when Bill Chapman, the longtime chief financial officer for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, gave his board a 10-year money forecast. Having covered the mobility authority since 2003, I knew the agency’s four toll roads (including the new MoPac express lanes) had been doing well. But even I was surprised at how brilliantly green the numbers looked.
And assuming Chapman and his staff have it right — and I think they do, directionally — the agency very quickly would have a healthy surplus to use on other transportation projects. Perhaps even free-to-drive roads. And even transit. The agency, after all, was authorized under the original state law to do more than just build and operate toll roads.
So, some numbers:
• The 183-A tollway in March averaged about 170,000 toll transactions a day (a car can rack up two or even three transactions on a single trip), about 7 percent above projections made several years ago to justify borrowing money for construction. Transactions are up 6 percent over 2017 and almost 16 percent since 2016, and they have tripled since the road opened in 2007.
• The U.S. 290 East tollway, which opened in 2013, had 87,400 transactions in March, 26 percent above projections and 22 percent above transactions two years ago.
• The Texas 71 toll lanes east of the airport, just now completing their first year of operation, had about 28,000 transactions in February (I couldn’t get March figures), about 40 percent above projections.
• The MoPac toll lanes have been averaging about 35,000 transactions a day, officials said, about 10 percent above projections. But the real difference comes in the price, which fluctuates with demand on the free lanes and toll lanes rather than being a set price as is the case with other area tollways. The average toll going northbound during the afternoon rush period has been about $5 since the toll lanes fully opened in February, about double the $2.57 projection. The rush hour average prices, morning and afternoon and in both directions, have been similarly above projections.
• And the Central Texas Turnpike System operated by the Texas Department of Transportation — Texas 130 north of Mustang Ridge, Texas 45 North, and Texas 45 Southeast — saw transactions grow by 7 percent in fiscal 2017 and revenue go up 8 percent. The 66-mile system has been operating in the black for several years.
Chapman said the mobility authority’s financial system of toll roads — MoPac, which stands alone financially, is not included — this year will have a $31 million surplus after paying off debt, several reserve funds and operating costs. That surplus figure is predicted to grow to $105 million a year by 2023. The estimated total system surplus for the coming decade: almost $840 million.
As I said, that does not include MoPac, which based on the early numbers appears to be off to a faster start financially than predicted. It also does not include the U.S. 183 South tollway, now under construction and expected to open in two phases in 2019 and 2020, or the Texas 45 Southwest toll road, which also should open in 2019.
Assuming those roads also perform well financially, as everything we’ve seen over the past decade suggests, then those surplus numbers could become even better.
All of this has come at a cost, of course. The mobility authority, counting the money borrowed to build the roads currently under construction, has more than $1.5 billion in debt, and TxDOT owes about $2.4 billion. The tolls pay for both that principal and considerable interest, along with operating costs that are higher than they would be with a free road because of the cost of processing tolls.
It would have been cheaper, project by project, to have had a higher state or federal gas tax and pay cash. But members of the Legislature and Congress didn’t choose to do that over the past quarter of a century, so here we are in the area with nine tollways, going on 11, and five more toll projects waiting for clearance to proceed.
Which brings up the current position by Republican state leaders on building toll roads. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, after supporting toll roads for a very long time, are now against them. Abbott’s appointees on the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs TxDOT, have gotten the unsubtle message and have shut down all planning and funding of new tollways.
Austin’s businesses and elected leaders, meanwhile, led by state Sen. Kirk Watson, a Democrat, continue to support building tollways. Given the numbers above, and the lack of money to build huge urban highways with tax revenue, it’s not hard to see why.
People in Central Texas might not have wanted toll roads back around the turn of the century. But they want to be able to get around, and the toll roads are making that easier. So would the five projects in limbo.
We’ll see in the coming months if that matters.