Tolling Texans: Toll plans spread as state funds lag
A series on the growth of roads and toll lanes in the state.
Texas’ first major toll road, opened in 1957, was a 30-mile six-lane stretch of highway between Dallas and Fort Worth. A ride from one end to the other costs 50 cents.
By 1977, the tolls had generated enough revenue to recover the cost of building the road. The toll booths have been conscientiously removed. Drivers today know the Dallas-Fort Worth toll freeway as Interstate 30.
Fast forward 35 years and I-30, while still free, is surrounded by billions of dollars in highway projects that feature toll roads or lanes. It’s a similar story on a smaller scale in other urban centers across the state as well as in some communities along the border with Mexico. As fast-growing Texas public officials search for ways to build more roads despite the lack of public funding, toll revenues or investments from private companies hoping to raise those toll revenues repeatedly appear as the antidote. .
In the opinion of many critics, the Texas toll has gone from an option if we absolutely have to the default approach for major highway projects.
“A day will surely come when, if you want to get from point A to point B, you will have no choice but to take a toll road,” Sen said. Jean Carona, R-Dallas, warned during a panel discussion at Texas Tribune Festival in September on the financing of transport. “Well, suddenly a toll is just one more tax. Let’s not kid each other.
The current toll boom is fueled by the transport financing system in Texas, which is well below the state’s needs. Federal and state gasoline taxes are the primary source of revenue for road construction and maintenance. Despite rising construction costs and improving fuel efficiency in cars, Texans pay the same 38.4 cents in federal and state taxes per gallon of gasoline as they did almost 20 years ago. years. In recent years, the Texas Department of Transportation has borrowed billions of dollars to finance transportation projects.
A 2009 report by an advisory committee said Texas should invest about $ 4 billion more per year in its current highway system just to keep congestion from getting worse. As proposals to increase transport revenues have not garnered sufficient political support, the imposition of a toll is now seen as one of the few viable avenues for developing major roads.
“It is a tool that you must use in the current economic climate with the resources at our disposal” Phil wilson, said the executive director of TxDOT in September. He also stressed that various local community leaders must approve a toll project before it can go ahead.
Over the past six years, Texas has built over 150 miles of toll roads. Over 100 miles of additional toll projects are underway.
The Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth regions lead the state in toll collection. The Harris County Toll Road Authority and the North Texas Tollway Authority are the ninth and 10the-the largest toll agencies in terms of revenue, raising $ 881 million in 2011, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.
Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, attributes the tolls to the $ 14 billion in new road projects under construction in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“If you’re the fourth largest region in the country and you have 1 million people every 10 years, you have to do something,” Morris said.
“Whatever money we have now has to go to maintaining the system. So if we are to build our capacity, we will have to do it with new toll lanes or a new toll road.
Yet the toll projects spread to smaller, poorer parts of Texas like El Paso and Brownsville. In Hidalgo County, South Texas, the three toll road projects developing are seen as better than raising taxes on the community as a whole, said Mike Perez, McAllen city manager.
“The feeling is if you want to use it, you should pay for it,” Perez said. “That’s what I see at McAllen. There is a kind of reluctance to ‘Let’s all go together and pay so 20% can use it.’ “
In addition to the increase in toll projects, there is private sector interest in their construction and operation. The easy-to-explain financing of the original Dallas-Fort Worth toll highway – drivers only pay tolls until bonds issued to finance road construction are paid off – is now often replaced by comprehensive development agreements designed to last for decades.
Cintra, a Spain-based toll operator, is the leading company in three major toll projects in Texas, including the state’s first private toll road, a segment of State Highway 130 from Austin to Seguin that has opened in October. The terms of the three contracts allow Cintra to collect road tolls for approximately 50 years.
Nicolas Rubio, president of the US branch of Austin-based Cintra, said contracts for such long periods are the only way for companies like his to recoup the large initial investment they are making in construction and l ‘road maintenance.
“When you really look at these projects, most of the income is back-end, and you have to be patient until you can get that money back,” Rubio said.
He underlined the LBJ Express, a project that will rebuild parts of Interstate 635 and Interstate 35E in Dallas and add toll lanes. A consortium led by Cintra is providing $ 2.2 billion in funding for the $ 2.7 billion project and will maintain the corridor until 2061 in return for a portion of the toll revenues.
In 2009, TxDOT estimated that the project would bring in $ 18.1 billion to a private company over the term of the contract, according to public records.
The first segment of the LBJ Express is slated to open in late 2013, years earlier than it would have been possible without private money, according to TxDOT.
Last year, the legislature gave the ministry approval to continue partnerships with private companies on seven road projects. Some business leaders are pushing for the approval of more such agreements while others are hoping lawmakers will create a more reliable income stream for the state road fund.
In the midst of the debate, some communities are proceeding with caution in their first forays into the toll. El Paso’s first toll lanes will open next year along part of the VSésar Chavez The border highway despite concerns that the area is too poor for the project to attract enough paying drivers. El Paso officials have added a clause to the city’s agreement with TxDOT that requires toll lanes to be converted to free lanes if, after 15 years, the project is not profitable.
Rep. state Joe pickettD-El Paso said the clause ensures El Paso is not stuck with underused toll lanes as traffic on the freeway lanes of the road continues to escalate.
“It won’t make us money for a long time,” Pickett said. “They’re going to have to at least work on it and make sure it’s something people want to use.”
This story is part two in a four part series about the growth of roads and toll lanes in the state. To view Part 1, an interactive map of toll projects around the state, click on here. To see Part 3, which examines why toll lane projects are poised to expand across the state in the coming years, click here. To see the final part, a look at the long-term impact of Governor Rick Perry’s failed bid to build the Trans-Texas Corridor, click here.