Wear: Why toll fees remain uncapped on some Central Texas roads


Highlights

The 2017 law capping fees for paying tolls late applies to TxDOT roads, not mobility authority-run tollways.

In other toll news, the U.S. 183 toll project is running on schedule and should be fully open in August 2020.

Meanwhile, Cap Metro is seeing ridership grow on routes using toll lanes, is mulling more park-and-ride lots.

Sometimes the answer you get depends on how you ask the question.

That was certainly the case this past week when, to the nonattorneys among us at least, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton seemed to say that the fees for failing to pay tolls on all Austin tollways would be limited to $48 a year. Turns out, almost certainly, that that is not what he said.

The late payment fees on North MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) south of Parmer Lane, 183-A, U.S 290 East and Texas 71 East, at least until the Legislature meets again next year, will remain more or less unlimited. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority operates those four roads.

The $48 annual cap, passed by the Legislature last year and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, will apply only to the four roads in the Austin area operated by the Texas Department of Transportation: Texas 130, Texas 45 North, Texas 45 Southeast and Loop 1 north of Parmer Lane.

Confusing? Particularly on MoPac where one part of the road is fish and the other part is decidedly foul?

Well, yeah.

And almost certainly not the clarity that state Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat, was looking for last September when he sent an official query to Paxton on the matter. He asked for an attorney general’s opinion — nonbinding but nonetheless influential in most cases — about whether the fee cap (which went into effect Thursday) applies to “an entity operating a toll lane pursuant to Section 228.007(b), Transportation Code.”

Ah, yes, Section 228.007(b). I’m sure you were perusing that piece of legislative literature just the other night.

What you need to know is that our local toll agency, the mobility authority, built and operates its tollways (the ones that will NOT have a fee cap) under a different part of the Texas Transportation Code, Section 370. So it appears that only TxDOT-operated roads will be subject to the cap. Meaning, the ones covered under Section 228.

The mobility authority’s lawyers came to this conclusion immediately when Paxton weighed in Monday, and TxDOT weighed in Thursday with the same opinion.

Look for the Legislature to revisit this one in 2019.

Speaking of tolls, the mobility authority board had a busy meeting last week, doing a number of things worth knowing.

First, it decided to change the contractor (starting in November) that handles the late or unpaid bills I just mentioned. Again, just the pay-by-mail tolls incurred on the four mobility authority roads. None of this affects regular toll charges on electronic toll tags, which are handled by a TxDOT contractor.

Officials said the new contractor, Cofiroute (a jawbreaker of a name; it’s a French company), will be able to email bills rather than mail all of them as is the case now, and it will charge the mobility authority much less than the authority’s current bill handler, Municipal Services Bureau. And know this, you folks who end up owing money for tolls: Tracie Brown, the mobility authority’s operations director, said that you can already pay your toll bills live at H-E-B, 7-11 and Walmart, and that Cofiroute will create a storefront somewhere in Austin for toll payers to visit and settle up.

Second, unlike the long-delayed and still-not-quite-finished MoPac toll project, the huge U.S. 183 job in East Austin remains well within its schedule, mobility authority engineering director Justin Word said. To remind you, the mobility authority (again, deputized by TxDOT) is expanding what has for decades been a four-lane highway into a six-lane tollway with four to six free frontage road lanes. The expanded, 8-mile section will run from where the U.S 183 freeway ends right now, near U.S. 290, to the interchange with Texas 71 near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

That includes multiple new bridges over the Colorado River at the complicated intersection with Airport Boulevard and East Seventh Street, and a much-expanded interchange at Texas 71.

Word said there are typically about 600 workers on the project (MoPac’s contractor sometimes struggled to keep 200 people on the job). And the authority still expects the northern section from U.S. 290 to Bolm Road to open to toll traffic by November 2019, and the remaining stretch to Texas 71 to be open for tolling by August 2020.

And finally, Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of planning and strategic development, told the toll board that ridership on its express buses using MoPac to get to and from North and Northwest Austin is up 20 percent since many of those routes began using the toll lanes late last year. Of course, Hemingson added, they are running many more buses now in those corridors. And it’s early yet, so the numbers are soft.

But encouraging.

The toll and transit agencies are looking at installing up to nine additional park-and-ride lots near current or future toll roads, Hemingson and mobility authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said. Of course, no one is saying who will pay for these lots, which can cost several million dollars mostly because of the expensive real estate needed. The buses, by the way, pay no tolls to the authority for using the lanes.

“The board still has some significant decisions to make on this,” Heiligenstein said.

But he allowed himself a reverie about one such potential lot, that being at or near the Dell Diamond on Round Rock’s east side where the Express Triple-A team plays. He said team executives have talked to him about how afternoon traffic up Interstate 35 and MoPac, as well as on lesser streets leading to the ballpark, have been a problem for baseball fans who might otherwise come to games after working in Austin.

Put in a park-and-ride along U.S. 79 at the Diamond, and route a Capital Metro bus line to and from Central Austin, Heiligenstein said, and a person could park there in the morning, take the bus to work and then return in the evening just in time for a beer, a dawg and nine innings.

“That’s kind of a perfect day, if you think about it,” Heiligenstein said.



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