Perry's toll tax legacy turns five

Link to article here.

Here's the text of an email I sent to Reporter Ben Wear in response to this article claiming the dust-up over toll roads has faded....

Toll roads are no more popular today than when Sal Costello started the Austin Toll Party.

Case in point....

Defeat of Prop 4.

Other Indicators -
• Open Letter signed by over 100 grassroots groups, mostly tea parties across the state hand delivered to the Governor, Lt. Gov., Speaker and every legislator during the session. This level of opposition is UNPRECEDENTED, eclipsing even the backlash in 2007. (The file with 2,000 signatures that also signed onto this letter is too big to include here.)
• DFW is raging over the Cintra takeover up there, and the proposed tolls on every new lane of pavement
• Houston is hopping mad over the $10 HOT lanes
• San Antonio is as stirred up as ever

Though Sal Costello's online petition isn't dumping massive emails into elected officials' in-boxes (or yours) anymore, it doesn't mean the anti-toll angst has faded. It means the grassroots have adapted to spam filters and switched to new methods to protest the toll roads. Since the economic downturn (starting in 2008), driving overall continues to go down, not up. It shows the average motorist can't afford the sustained increase in gas prices much less tolls on top on it. People are being forced to change their habits and drive less to make ends meet.

Also, please don't confuse the cues from the politicians with the sentiment among taxpayers. Just because the politicos have allowed this nonsense to continue doesn't mean the PEOPLE of Texas are suddenly fine with selling off our roads to foreign companies nor are they okay with this new tax on driving! Few can afford the extra $2,000-$3,000 a year in new taxes to get to work (though maybe some will pony-up for the occasional football game as you did, but infrequent use isn't enough to pay for the roads). So few, the users aren't covering the debt. The fact you site that SH 130 has had a 70% increase in traffic since it opened (deeming it a success) while failing to mention that taxpayers have had to pony-up 70% MORE in subsidies to bailout the loser toll roads in Austin to the tune of $100 million, or ,to quote you, that the system will be 'in the red for a generation,' or that SH 45 SE though 100% paid for was opened as a toll road to cover the losses elsewhere, or that a distressed plane landed on SH 130 it was so empty shows either 'selective' memory or some other agenda at work.

SH 130 is the poster child of failed toll road policy in Texas. It promised to relieve congestion on I-35 and hasn't delivered.  Your own articles repeatedly note that even with drops in the truck toll rates, it hasn't made truckers switch from free I-35 to the SH 130 tollway. They're so desperate to increase traffic on SH 130, there's talk of tolling existing I-35 and making it SH 130, and making existing SH 130 the new I-35. Overall, drivers are protesting with their cars...they're not using the toll roads as much as projected, certainly not in the volume needed to pay for the debt. They're not solvent and now ALL Texans taxpayers, whether we use the toll roads are not, are paying dearly to prop-up this grand toll road experiment.

The wheels are coming off these failed policies and I hope you'll inform the public of the truth.

Terri Hall
Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom

Tollways turn 5, to little notice

Ben Wear, Getting There

Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011
Austin American Statesman

The anniversary passed quietly a week ago if anything that happens on Halloween can truly be considered quiet with no official notice.

Five years ago, Austin's toll road era began.

That opening, and the several year gestation that led to it, was anything but quiet. Austin media was all over the toll road system that day, watching TxDOT workers pull aside sawhorses and the first cars pull onto the tollways.

There had been querulous public meetings for several years, with people arguing about where to put toll roads (should Texas 130 go east or west of Walter Long Lake?), about whether to convert what were going to be free expressways into toll roads (the William Cannon Drive overpass on MoPac Boulevard, U.S. 183 north of Oak Knoll Drive, Texas 71 east of Interstate 35), and about whether building a toll road on top of a free road and adding free frontage roads was double taxation (U.S. 183 east of Interstate 35, the Y at Oak Hill).

Then there was angst over the possible conversion of free roads to toll roads (legal briefly, then scuttled before any conversions occurred), the Trans-Texas Corridor plan of toll roads all over the state (also in state law, also scuttled, eventually) and long-term leases to let private companies, particularly foreign companies, build toll roads on the state highway system.

I wrote so many toll road stories in those years that even I got sick of them. I checked the American-Statesman archives, searching for stories that had both "Ben Wear" and "toll" in them. From 2004 through 2007, I averaged 96 stories a year on the topic, or one about every four days. Including weekends.
In 2010, that combo showed up 24 times. So far this year, the number is 35. This will be No. 36.

So, the topic has cooled.

Central Texas has five toll roads open now, a total of about 77 miles, and including the extension of Texas 130 to Seguin, an additional 50 miles is under construction. The Texas Department of Transportation operates four of the tollways, and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority runs the other one. There are now 950,000 cars and trucks on Texas roads with TxTags, the electronic tolling devices issued by TxDOT that attach to windshields and enable overhead toll readers to automatically charge the car's owner. Most of these are in the Austin area, given that the majority of TxDOT tollways are here. (There are also TxDOT toll roads in Laredo and Tyler, and a short one near Houston that opened a month ago.)

I rarely get emails from readers anymore about toll roads, and those I do get are usually from people who have had trouble with a toll bill. Sal Costello, a graphic designer who started an anti-toll group called the Austin Toll Party and pushed for the recall of Austin City Council members who supported toll roads, moved away from Texas several years ago. Political attacks on Gov. Rick Perry over his pro-tollway policies (and his brainchild, the Trans-Texas Corridor) pretty much bounced off him.

And the Legislature, which in 2007 had indignantly smote down those long-term leases, has since softened and this spring authorized TxDOT and regional mobility authorities to initiate many more of them.

The Austin-area tollways have seen heavier usage as the years have gone by, even if only one is profitable so far (the mobility authority's 183-A in Cedar Park). Texas 130 on the metro area's eastern fringe, for instance, has seen a 70 percent increase in traffic since 2008.

Still, predictions that the toll roads would be financially ruinous for drivers have not come to pass. The reality: People who can afford to use the tollways for everyday commutes, do so. Those who can't afford it use the free roads they were using before.

As for the rest of us, some never go on a toll road. Others, like me, drive on one now and then when paying to save a few minutes makes sense.

Last week, in my part-time life as a football official, I had a 6 p.m. ninth-grade game in Manor. I bushwhacked my way from downtown east on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, hitting more traffic than I expected along the way. By the time I got to FM 973, which leads to Manor and is just short of Texas 130, it was already 5:40 p.m. So I made the choice to skip that slower, free road and drive 75 mph on Texas 130 for a few miles. My toll tag was dunned $1.35 for the trip.

As it happened, they started the game eight minutes early. As I was entering the stadium gate, the referee blew the whistle for the opening kickoff. After a sprint, I was in position for the first play from scrimmage.

Without Texas 130, I probably would have missed at least half of the first quarter. Money well-spent.

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