Even now, almost 11 years into the Central Texas tollway era, I have friends who wouldn’t drive on a toll road if were paved in purest gold and led directly to the Pearly Gates.
One of them is a colleague on my football officiating crew. It even rankles him to be a passenger in a car on a tollway heading to our out-of-town games (a little piece of heaven, that), when someone else is paying the toll.
The whole concept of paying a fee to drive just ticks off a subset of the driverati, to be genteel about it. And perhaps some don’t trust the billing system, either through electronic toll tags on windshields or the pay-by-mail option. The recent news that some Texas toll systems have been wrongly sending bills (at higher toll rates) to thousands if not millions of tag holders no doubt will only intensify that animus and suspicion.
As of last week, that blunder hadn’t been fully solved, and its reach hadn’t been conclusively calculated, officials briefed on it told me. Not good.
But know this: The eight toll roads in Central Texas, taken as a group (because one of them is definitely not doing well), are being used by a whole lot of people and bringing in a mind-boggling amount of money. Some of those numbers:
• The Central Texas toll roads have generated almost $1.5 billion in toll revenue since Loop 1 and segments of Texas 45 North and Texas 130 opened in October 2006.
• Taken together, drivers on the eight roads coughed up $272 million in tolls in the most recent fiscal year and at least another $32 million in administrative and late-payment fees (I don’t have the fee figure for the struggling Texas 130 section southeast of Austin that is run by private owners under a long-term lease with the Texas Department of Transportation). That $304 million would be about $150 for every man, woman and nondriving child in the five-county Austin metro area, although I’ll acknowledge that an unknown but no doubt significant piece of the money came from outsiders passing through.
• The roads saw about 250 million toll transactions in the past year, or about 685,000 per day. Most people taking a trip on a tollway will pass through at least two tolling points, and a good number of them make a round trip. So it’s hard to say how many human beings per day we’re talking about on those eight roads. But divide by four, for a rough approximation of how many transactions each person racks up in a given day, and we’re talking about more than 170,000 people a day choosing to use a Central Texas toll road.
The area has more than 930,000 active TxTags, according to TxDOT, close to half of all tags issued by TxDOT statewide.
Most of the time drivers on the tollways are moving at or near the speed limit (though Texas 130 between the airport and Hutto sees some rush-hour slowdowns). But this mobility, this 132 miles of tollways (with another 23 miles under construction now), has come at a price, one that your children will be paying for the next quarter-century. We’re talking about $4.3 billion of debt. That amounts to more than $2,000 for each of those men, women and children I mentioned above.
That debt total, by the way, would be about $1.4 billion larger if not for the recent agreement that brought the southern section of Texas 130 out of bankruptcy. Under the court’s agreement with investors — including the federal government, which had more than $500 million in loans sunk into the financially failing road — that much debt was cast aside.
The tolls, along with administrative fees and late fines, will be what pays back that $4.3 billion of debt, and in some cases this revenue stream is already spinning off a minimal profit to the agencies that own the tollways (again, not counting that southern section of Texas 130).
The Central Texas Turnpike System, which TxDOT owns and which includes the Loop 1, Texas 45 North and Texas 45 Southeast tollways along with the northern 49 miles of Texas 130, owes about $2.4 billion. That debt is to be paid off by 2042, with the annual payment steadily increasing from this year’s $115 million or so. But the expected toll revenue from the four roads is much larger, about $189 million.
That means even with an estimated $60 million in operations and maintenance costs, the system this year should spin off about $15 million in profit, a figure expected to grow through the years. This is the so-called economic engine that toll advocates used to talk about all the time when the tollways were first being built in 2004 and 2005, in effect money that could be used to build other roads (including nontoll roads) or even transit facilities.
This potential largess remains pretty slim in the context of the string-of-zeroes transportation world. At the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which has three operating tollways (183-A, U.S. 290 East and Texas 71 East) and three more under construction, the few million in annual surplus revenue at this point simply goes back into future toll projects. No bonanza, in other words, for people driving on the free system — not yet.
I know I’ve hit you with a lot of numbers here. But let me revisit that $150 a person in tolls. Since people on average use about 500 gallons of gas a year in each car, $150 a year would equate to an added 30 cents a gallon on the gas tax.
The Legislature has not raised the state’s 20 cents a gallon gas tax since 1991 (and the federal 18.4 cents a gallon gas tax hasn’t changed since 1993). So these tolls have functioned as a sort of silent increase in the gas tax, one unevenly distributed and paid by those people who choose to take the toll roads.
I’ve had a tag since before the first toll road opened and, because of where I have lived over the past decade (not adjacent to a tollway, in other words), have paid no more than $300 in all that time. But the roads were there when I needed them.
So, you toll road haters, grind your teeth if you want to and resolutely stay off them. But maybe thank a toll tag holder sometime, particularly if they live in Cedar Park, Round Rock or Pflugerville. They’ve been bearing much of the burden for the incredible amount of new highway capacity added to Central Texas over the past decade.
The picture will change over the next couple of years. The North MoPac toll lanes are expected to open this fall, then U.S. 183 in East Austin and, barring intervention by a federal judge mulling a lawsuit right now, Texas 45 Southwest in a couple more years, and so many more people in Austin’s core are going to be tempted to join the toll party.
Maybe even my fellow ref.