Tolls set to go up in September
By Mike Morris
Updated 11:07 a.m., Friday, July 13, 2012
Starting in September, that jaunt on a Harris County toll road might save you time, but it won't spare your change.
Unless Commissioners Court intervenes, rates at main-lane toll plazas on the Sam Houston, Westpark Tollway, Hardy Toll Road and the one toll booth on the Fort Bend Parkway inside Harris County are scheduled to increase Sept. 8 from $1.30 to $1.40 for EZ Tag users and from $1.50 to $1.75 for cash customers.
Rates would jump from $4 to $5 during peak hours on the Katy Freeway's managed lanes.
Westbound peak hours are scheduled to shift one hour earlier, to run from to 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Off-peak rates on the managed lanes would not change, nor would rates on the Ship Channel bridge.
It would be the first system-wide toll hike for both credit card and cash users since 2007.
Tolls are set by a 2007 policy that increases rates annually by 2 percent or inflation, whichever is greater. The increases occur in increments of 5 cents for EZ Tag users and 25 cents for cash-payers. While the rate increase is calculated every year, the increase is not passed on to drivers until it surpasses the minimum increments.
A scheduled increase in 2011 was deferred to this year, allowing the EZ Tag rates to jump by a dime.
Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Peter Key explained the need for the increase by pointing to the $1.9 billion his agency plans to spend on capital projects through 2020.
"We feel like we have a compelling argument to make that, for the region's continued prosperity, there have to be funds available to fund regional infrastructure improvements," Key said. "The county toll road system happens to be one of the entities that's still solvent to be able to do that."
Fred Zelt, a Woodlands residents who works in Greenspoint, uses Beltway 8 and the Hardy most work days, and often on weekends. The EZ Tag user said he does not see the rate changes affecting his commute much.
"I do think about (cost), so it is a consideration," he said. "But my perception is that the toll roads often are safer, so that's a consideration that helps balance the cost."
Making some changes
Soma Dasgupta, a Sugar Land resident who works downtown and uses Beltway 8 twice a week to teach in Cypress and Kingwood, said she likely will not change her route to her teaching jobs. Personal errands will be a different story, she said.
"I'm not for the hike, of course. Nobody likes paying more," Dasgupta, another EZ Tag user, said. "If it's not necessary, I wouldn't go onto Beltway 8."
Harris County Commissioners Court could vote to block the toll hikes, but at least two court members said they would not do so.
County Judge Ed Emmett said he supports the increase, noting that the county will be able to improve mobility at a time when the Texas Department of Transportation is hamstrung by insufficient gas-tax revenues.
"Like it or not, there's no highway fairy in the sky that's going to pay to build new roads or maintain the roads that we have," Emmett said. "This is just keeping up with inflation, and it allows us to continue expanding the toll road system."
Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle agreed.
"The necessity of keeping a healthy, vibrant toll road system is critically important at a time when we are trying to build our economy back up," Cagle said. "We need it, with our growth."
Projects ready to go
The toll road authority has no shortage of projects in its pipeline.
A roughly $100 million widening of the South Belt between U.S. 59 and Texas 288 is under way; that widening work soon will extend from 288 to Interstate 45. The agency has budgeted $190 million this fiscal year for moving rail lines, buying right of way and building street overpasses in preparation for connecting the Hardy Toll Road to downtown.
HCTRA also plans to turn dirt next fall on the first phase of a Texas 249 toll road running from Spring-Cypress Road to the Tomball bypass, Key said. A team effort with the TxDOT to add free and managed lanes to U.S. 290 will cost $400 million between now and 2017.