As El Paso prepares for its first toll lanes, officials in the border city are struggling with a question that, for geographical reasons, has been less of a concern in Dallas, Austin or Houston, where toll roads are prevalent and proliferating: Will Mexican drivers get a free ride?
El Paso will have an electronic tolling system, the same kind that has replaced tollbooths in other parts of the state. Vehicles sporting toll tags are charged as they speed past electronic readers. Those without a tag are sent a bill in the mail.
“What do you think is going to happen when we send those bills to Juárez?” El Paso Mayor John Cook asked at a transportation conference in Irving this month.
He predicted that the bills, which come from a tolling agency in another country, would be ignored.
“The tolls will only be for Texans, not for Mexicans,” Cook said. “It’s going to be highly unpopular, and I don’t think the revenue is going to be there for it.”
The Texas Department of Transportation is overseeing the expansion of a busy nine-mile stretch of Loop 375, also called the Border Highway, from four lanes to six lanes, two of which will be tolled. Rates have not been set but will vary by time of day to keep traffic on the tolled lanes flowing, said Raymond Telles, the head of the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority in El Paso.
Although critics of the plan have argued that the region may be too poor to sustain tolled lanes, Telles noted that local residents pay bridge fees at area border crossings.
“The idea we’ve never paid a toll in El Paso is not exactly correct,” Telles said. “We just know them as different names.”
More than 30,000 vehicles cross the bridges northbound from Mexico daily, according to the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation. Local officials worry that few Mexican drivers will feel compelled to pay the tolls. Both Cook and state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said they fear paying drivers will feel they are subsidizing Mexican drivers.
“It’s going to be a big problem," Pickett said. “If I had a Chihuahua license plate, I’d be using that toll road all the time."
The North Texas Tollway Authority in the Dallas area converted the last of its toll roads to an all-electronic, cashless system in 2010. The Harris County Toll Road Authority in Houston is a hybrid system, with some parts cashless while other portions still accept cash, said spokesman Eric Hanson. Mexican drivers make up a tiny fraction of the drivers on toll roads in both areas, according to spokesmen with both agencies.
Toll agencies have charged scofflaws with escalating fines to encourage payment. The NTTA recently published the names of thousands of violators and will soon file civil suits against some of them, said Michael Rey, a spokesman for the authority, which is lobbying the Legislature for power to block vehicle registrations of those with delinquent tolls. Such a tool would not help with cars registered in Mexico, but the authority to impound scofflaws’ vehicles would, Cook said.
The situation that some El Paso officials fear is already emerging in a border community more than 800 miles away. The first portion of State Highway 550 opened in Cameron County last year. When completed, the toll road will connect the Port of Brownsville to U.S. Highway 77.
Cars from Mexico on the road, minimal so far but expected to increase, are not being billed, said David Garcia, the assistant coordinator for the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority. But some drivers want to do their part.
“We’ve had a few calls from Mexican drivers that are calling and asking where they can send payments,” Garcia said.