Tolls top $8 for commute on newly opened MoPac toll lanes
By Terri Hall
October 24, 2017
It didn’t take long for toll rates to exceed affordability. The newly opened toll managed lanes on MoPac (from Lady Bird Lake to Parmer Lane) in Austin topped $8 to go 11 miles, and cost $6.28 to drive the northern 6 miles during the evening commute. That’s just in the first week of operation. If you think that’s insane, that’s because it is. No one should have to pay over $1 a mile to get to or from work in a reasonable time. Texans pay a litany of road taxes, primarily the gasoline tax, to pay for public highways. Twice in as many years, Texas voters gave the largest boost in road funding to the state highway fund — totaling nearly $5 billion more per year. Yet supercharged toll roads continue to come online virtually unabated.
Toll managed lanes like those on MoPac use congestion pricing. The toll you pay no longer relates to the actual cost of building the road you’re driving on. Now tolls vary based on the level of congestion, rising and falling continually throughout peak hours, potentially changing in 5-minute intervals. Toll roads often provide time reliability, but today’s congestion tolling means you don’t have price reliability. A study done in 2016 by the Texas Transportation Institute at A&M, found that congestion tolling both angers and confuses the public. It states one of the biggest challenges is public acceptance.
According to the study, the top three reasons the public dislikes congestion tolling are: opposition to paying more to travel on top of what the public is already paying for roads, the complex requirements for using the lanes that change based on region, time of day, number of people in the car, and price, and the tax burden on lower income drivers without good non-toll options.
To add to the outrage, the MoPac toll project was fully paid for by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) with $200 million in gasoline taxes. No debt was owed to build it. When the public balked at the double tax scheme of making drivers pay a toll to use a road their taxes paid for, officials turned it into a loan to be paid to the local transportation policy board who will use it to build other roads MoPac drivers may never use.
Taxpayers also ended up paying $38 million more for the project than estimated, and it was over two years behind schedule in opening, with the prolonged construction negatively impacting businesses and commuters alike. Because of the legal troubles of dealing with the design-build contractor, CH2M, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) will issue debt to pay-off the contractor to make potential litigation disputing various change orders and additional work go away.
Even with the $38 million in additional costs and the agency having to issue some debt to finish paying the contractor, the $20 million in debt issued is a drop in the bucket and no excuse to charge Austinites tolls in perpetuity to use lanes their taxes already paid for. The debt is due to the project’s gross mismanagement by a rookie agency, the CTRMA, that lacks the accountability and depth of project management experience of TxDOT (that our taxes already pay to operate). So Texans are paying taxes upon taxes to build and maintain public highways thanks to this duplicative, wasteful, mismanaged bureaucracy running the show.
Given that the CTRMA’s Executive Director who oversees a dozen employees makes $366,112 a year compared to the $299,812 salary of TxDOT’s Executive Director, who oversees 11,000 employees, you get a glimpse at the Texas-sized toll bureaucracy problem. State lawmakers have long excused digging into the financial waste and mismanagement at TxDOT because the state lacks the funds and resources to audit an agency that big. How will adding nine more of these mini-TxDOT’s known as Regional Mobility Authorities solve the problem? It exploded the waste ninefold.
Taxpayers will continue to face a logjam of ill-conceived toll projects just like MoPac all over the state despite Governor Greg Abbott’s campaign promise to fix Texas without more taxes, fees, tolls, or debt. Why? As long as local transportation boards known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) continue to push for toll slush funds to fund a host of local pet projects, the governor’s highway commission has shown little appetite for bucking them. Voters need to get engaged or risk being priced off their public roadways altogether. If congestion tolls are starting out at over $1/mile in peak hours, imagine what they’ll be next year or in 10 years. There is no legal requirement to remove tolls from these highways, even when there’s no debt owed. Expect Texas commuters to do a full court press to change that when the legislature reconvenes in 2019.