February 16, 2007

Strama, Watson and Tolls (Oh My!)

Ben Wear is finally getting it and it's positively heart warming.

So, what does it cost you to drive on Central Texas' emerging toll road system?

Well, about 12 cents a mile. Unless it's 18 cents, or 40 cents, or 64 cents. Or, in one notable spot near Lakeline Mall, a cool $1.50 a mile.

So there's no consistency in the system AND it's more expensive than advertised? Gee. Didn't see that one coming.

Officials with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which is building and will operate 183-A, have been bracing for this sort of reaction.

They have an even broader problem, however.

The startup agency originally was going to build 11.6 miles of tollway, all the way from RM 620 to U.S. 183 north of Leander. But a traffic and revenue study done about three years ago indicated that, in the road's first decade, traffic north of RM 1431 would not justify the additional $100 million or so necessary to build express lanes all the way.

So the agency decided instead to build about 4.5 miles of tollway on the south end and then free two-lane frontage roads for the seven northernmost miles. But to pay back money borrowed to build all this, the agency will charge $1.80 for that 4.5-mile tollway trip. That's 40 cents a mile.

Of course, if you happen to live in Leander or points north, or have other business up that way, you'll be able to drive the whole 11.6 miles for that $1.80, stopping at a few stoplights in the free part. Cost: 15.5 cents a mile.

"Admittedly, it does get confusing," said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority since shortly after it was created in 2002. He compared the situation to a water system, in which early users of the system might have to pay for more of the startup costs of water mains but people in more outlying areas developed later get lower costs.

"We tried to hit the middle ground and give everyone a little something," he said. "Not everything's always fair."

No, Mike, it's not always fair but occasionally good things happen. Unless you're talking about toll roads. When it comes to them life is NEVER fair. Toll roads are bit like casinos, the house always wins. I say a bit because at least in a casino there is a chance, slim though it may be, that the gambler will win. With toll roads we never win. Especially the people who live off Wells Branch (they get the privilege of paying $0.64 PER MILE).

All this is interesting as hell since Strama and Watson are pushing a kinder, gentler toll concept. In principle, I get where they are going with this and it's entirely reasonable. It's also completely wrong. Why? It's a toll plan. If we've learned anything from cost per mile breakdowns, it's that the gas tax is uniformly cheaper. Across the board. That's simple math.

Don't get me wrong, I have a tremendous amount of respect for both Senator Watson and Rep. Strama (yes, Mark, the staff has come to terms with your cigarette tax increase...we understand it's needed to keep the kids at the cinema working behind the counter from being complete mongos). Their idea solves what they think are the biggest problems with tolls, a lack of accountability and a mechanism to eliminate tolls once debt has been paid. However, they've missed the fact that the vast majority of Texans, indeed of their constituents, don't want tolls. People know that if the tolling structure on 130 remains intact (for example), 35 will continue to be a mess through central Austin. While people who live in central Austin may not drive on these roads, they sure as hell recognize the benefit to them personally of an alternative for traffic that is passing through central Texas.

That's the point they missed. No one wants the tolls. Period.

Further, the argument has been made that tolls primarily affect the upper middle class in the burbs. The reality is that tolls always end up effecting those you don't intend. It would be great if we could just toll all those rich people in Georgetown and Cedar Park. The problem is, there aren't many of them there. Trust me, those folks are ordinary commuters, most of whom are living paycheck to paycheck. It's convenient to think of them as 'wealthy' in their McMansions. However, they aren't and as Mike Krusee found out during the last cycle, they don't like tolls. He'll get a much stronger taste of the public's hatred in 2008.

What's the choice? Well, Senator Carona and Rep. Coleman seem to have the right idea. Outright moratorium, restructuring the TTC and changing the funding for them.

Don't overthink this guys and quit trying to fix something that's already shattered! Sweep it aside and think outside the box.

Posted by mcblogger at February 16, 2007 01:52 PM

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Dude, just asserting that tolls don't hit primarily exurbanites doesn't fly. How many people living in East Austin are going to drive farther away from the city just to use SH130 or (future tolled) 183?

You're being played for a sucker by cretins like Sal Costello, whose primary argument is basically I Shouldn't Have To Pay Anything To Drive, since the gas tax as it exists today is a HUGE subsidy from urban drivers to more wealthy exurbanites like him.

Posted by: mdahmus [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2007 11:44 AM

Seriously, you don't get how a non-tolled 130 will pull down vehicle counts in Central Austin on 35?

Re-read the post. No one in Central Austin should have to drive on those roads. It's the traffic that WON'T be on 35 that'll help them.

Posted by: mcblogger [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2007 10:00 PM

OK, so explain to me why somebody living in East Austin and driving into Central Austin would care about I-35 traffic, which is primarily composed of suburban commuters (with a large amount of through traffic from outside our area)?

Again, you're being co-opted by the suburbanites like Costello whose real objection is Let Me Drive In Fast For Free. And there aren't any poor folks in _his_ neighborhood.

Posted by: mdahmus [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 20, 2007 08:48 AM

Man, you have such narrow view of Austin it really pisses me off. I live in north AUSTIN (not Round Rock, Pflugerville or Georgetown). I'm all the time on MoPac or 35 and having to fight for a spot with folks who are just passing through. 130 is not an option for as it's way the hell out of the way. However, if it was an option for through traffic then it would cut down on congestion in the central city and we could all move around faster.

What part of that do you not understand? You insist on thinking of only yourself and the other 100k people living central, most of whom do actually travel enough on 35 to realize that there is truth to what I'm saying. What about the rest of us who would actually like to see through traffic off 35?

Posted by: mcblogger [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 20, 2007 02:41 PM

Think about one other thing... folks all over this state helped pay for our transportation infrastructure, just as we helped pay for theirs. Why change that to a more expensive system that is bound to effect all of us negatively?

Posted by: mcblogger [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 20, 2007 02:45 PM

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