Senate to debate Hutchison ban on tolling free lanes

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Senate to debate Hutchison's ban on interstate tolls, but it won't stop spread of tolls on North Texas highways

By Michael Lindenberger/Reporter

Dallas Morning News
10:12 AM on Mon., Mar. 12, 2012 | Permalink

The Senate is expected to debate amendments to its version of the highway reauthorization bill later today, and one of the most watched scrums will be over two rival amendments that would deal with whether and how states can apply for permission to convert existing freeways to toll roads.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison wants the program currently in use that allows such conversations to end. Her amendment would ban all tolls on lanes that are currently free.

A rival amendment by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., would make it much easier for states to win that federal permission to add tolls to existing lanes. (Politico lays out all 18 related amendments under consideration today here.)

The fight isn't expected to have immediate impact on Texas, however, despite its status as one of the country's most aggressive champions of tolls. That's because existing rules at TxDOT already prohibit converting federal highways that are now free to toll lanes.

Hutchison's amendment would simply enshrine that into law.

That's still a big step for toll road opponents, who have never trusted Gov. Rick Perry's appointees to the Texas Transportation Commission to not look for every loophole they can find to expand the toll roads in Texas.

But the reality is that the rest of the country is rushing to follow Texas' lead in expanding toll roads, not reigning them in. This amendment by Carper reflects just that.

And while some states do want to add tolls to current free lanes -- leaders in Louisville, Ky., are counting on just that to pay for a new bridge over the Ohio River, for instance -- most states have managed to add tolls to interstates without needing the kind of permission Carper wants to make easier to obtain.

They do what Texas has been doing, especially in North Texas.

LBJ Freeway, otherwise known as Interstate 635, is part of the federal system. When local and state leaders wanted to rebuild they decided they wanted to add tolls to the interstate to make it easier to pay for.

But they didn't have to ask permission under the program Hutchison wants to abolish. Instead, they simply worked out a multi-billion contracts with Cintra toll firm that requires the company to rebuild the existing lanes, with some modest improvements, and keep them free.

Nearly all of the new capacity will come from tolls on new lanes built underneath the rebuilt free lanes.

That's the approach local leaders hope will be used to reconstruct Interstate 35E to Denton, and State Highway 183 out of Irving.

The bottom line: No matter what happens to Hutchison's bill, interstates will increasingly offer a mix of toll and free lanes. And as those interstates in big cities get more and more crowded, the future is clear: Any hope drivers have of seeing a reduction in time spent stuck in traffic will be tied directly to how much spare change they have to spend.