Toll and Tax, or Just Tax, to Pay for Highway Expansion?

A political decision by the Texas Transportation Commission last December to drop projects which included toll lanes was thought to doom 15 road expansions from their 10-year capital plan, but some will go forward with HOV as opposed to HOT lanes.

August 31, 2018, 12:00 PM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Freeway Construction

Tim Roberts Photography / Shutterstock

Last December, the Texas Transportation Commission, reacting to pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to not spend funds from statewide propositions passed by voters in 2014 and 2015 on express lanes, voted 5-0 to eliminate 15 express lane projects from their 10-year capital plan. Neither ballot measures created new revenue. Instead, both divert existing funding streams (the state's Rainy Day Fund and sales taxes, respectively,) to roads and prohibit spending the revenue on toll lanes.

Ben Wear, who covers transportation for the Austin American-Statesman, reports that some projects will be expanded after all, though not as originally planned.

In a major departure from previously announced proposals, though, the $8.1 billion overhaul of I-35 through Central Texas would include the addition from Round Rock to Buda of nontolled managed lanes in each direction. In practice, that would mean high occupancy vehicle [HOV] lanes — sometimes referred to as carpool lanes — that only vehicles with at least two or perhaps three people aboard would be allowed to use.

The Texas Department of Transportation and local legislators had previously said the addition of lanes to I-35 would be possible financially only with tolls — and the borrowing that charging tolls allows. Now, TxDOT’s “unified transportation plan” [sic] for fiscal 2019 through fiscal 2028 assumes that the agency eventually will expand I-35 without charging tolls.

Motorists may be pleased to hear that "relief" is coming, but Wear reports that TxDOT lacks most of the funds. "How the agency will come up with the lion’s share of the I-35 project’s cost, and when, remains undetermined in this year’s version of the plan," he adds.

Implications beyond financing

Dropping the toll lanes, also known as express or TEXpress Lanes, means limiting access and forfeiting a valuable congestion management strategy. Depending on the roadway and time-of-day, carpools either received free or 50% discounted access to the toll lanes, also generically called high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes if they benefit carpoolers, which not all do.

Solo drivers can access the express lanes that utilize variable congestion-management pricing to ensure traffic speeds of at least 50 miles per hour. Solo drivers who access the carpool lanes risk a hefty fine, and the carpool lane itself will lack the management provided by dynamic tolling.

Extra revenue

TxDOT, "which had estimated it would get $770 million through Proposition 1 this year, instead will get about $1.3 billion, officials said, because of increasing oil prices and production," adds Wear.

Proposition 7 will direct state sales tax of $2.5 billion, a figure estimated to climb in the coming years, to TxDOT, and the agency now receives another $500 million or more each year in gasoline taxes that previously had been allocated to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Another project Wear mentions is the U.S. 183 expansion in North Austin which would add two tolled lanes and one general purpose lane.

However, the plan now calls for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to undertake the project on its own, with bonded debt.

Related posts:

  • In a landmark, unanimous vote, the Texas Transportation Commission eliminated all 15 express lane projects from their 10-year capital plan despite pleas from Austin area officials to retain the $8 billion, I-35 project that includes four toll lanes.

Hat tip to IBTTA Smart Brief.

Monday, August 27, 2018 in Austin American-Statesman

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