A series on the growth of toll roads and lanes around the state.
For Texas drivers, the distinction between free roads and toll roads is starting to blur.
Across the state, multiple projects are under way to add toll lanes to free roads or to build highways with free and toll lanes alongside each other. While toll lanes, sometimes called express lanes, have been used for years in Houston, the state’s largest city, the concept is poised to spread to the next five largest cities in Texas. The trend is part of a larger boom of tolling projects sweeping the state as public officials find themselves with little tax revenue to spend on new roads. In Texas’ fast-growing urban areas, the addition of toll lanes can bridge the gap in financing for major highway projects.
The lanes are also more palatable to the public than full-fledged toll roads, according to Peter Samuel, editor of the Maryland-based Web site TOLLROADSnews.
“It gives people a choice,” Samuel said. “They don’t have to pay a toll to travel in the corridor, which makes it politically easier to get acceptance even though people will label them ‘Lexus lanes.’”
That term is used by critics like Terri Hall, founder of the anti-toll-road group Texans United for Reform and Freedom. She predicted that most would view toll lanes as a luxury rather than a benefit to communities.
“The few that can afford those lanes will get congestion relief, and the rest of us will still be paying the gas tax and sitting in traffic,” Hall said. “We’re restricting people’s ability to travel based on status.”
Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth and El Paso have toll lane projects in development, and San Antonio is considering adding toll lanes to two highway projects, according to officials in those cities.
Many of the projects are being designed to allow for dynamic tolling, in which the toll will rise or fall with traffic to ensure that vehicles in the lane can always travel above a certain speed. Electronic signs will notify drivers of the current toll price before they have to decide whether to enter the toll lane or stick with the free route.
“We have the goal of keeping traffic moving at 50 miles per hour,” said Tony Hartzel, a Texas Department of Transportation spokesman, who is familiar with projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. “The tolls on managed lanes will change every five or six minutes.”
In each metropolitan region, transportation officials are putting their own spin on the toll lane concept.
Some communities are developing the projects as High-Occupancy Toll lanes, which encourage carpooling by allowing vehicles with multiple occupants to use them for free or at a discount.
In Houston, HOT lanes that opened this year on Interstate 45 and United States Highway 59 were originally High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes that saw light traffic outside of rush hour, said Vince Obregon, associate vice president of capital projects with the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County. Carpoolers can still access the lanes for free, and their vehicles are the only ones allowed to use the lanes during the busiest times.
“It was our challenge to get more capacity out of the infrastructure we already had,” Obregon said.
The initial response has been positive, though the lanes are not producing enough revenue to cover their costs, Obregon said.
Two more Houston highways will have HOT lanes next year. Separate toll lanes on the Katy Freeway are operated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority and only allow H.O.V. riders free access during peak hours.
“I think when you look at the nature of these projects, the vast majority of them are conversions of H.O.V. lanes to HOT lanes,” said Ginger Goodin, a researcher with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which studies toll lane projects.
That is not the case in Austin, where toll lanes are planned for the busy MoPac Expressway. The new lanes will not treat carpoolers differently because such policies are difficult to enforce and could hurt the project’s financial security, said Steve Pustelnyk, a spokesman for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.
“The more people that can use the lanes for free, then the less reliable they become financially and you need greater public subsidies to make the project work,” Pustelnyk said. He added that the MoPac toll lanes would allow transit buses, registered van pools, emergency vehicles and military vehicles to ride for free.
That may be enough to deliver a strong boost to public transit in Austin, Goodin said. She pointed to Miami, where public buses that use toll lanes there have seen an increase in ridership due to the faster travel times, according to one federal study.
The Houston HOT lanes have two entrance ramps. Single-occupant vehicles take a ramp where an electronic reader charges the account tied to each car’s toll tag. Vehicles with multiple passengers are directed to the H.O.V. ramp, where a toll worker counts the passengers in a car as it passes and notifies a police officer of those trying to skirt the system.
Planners in North Texas hope to follow Houston’s lead and incentivize carpoolers to use the toll lanes being built as part of three highway projects, though they expect to enforce their policies differently.
They are developing a system similar to one used in Atlanta, where drivers, either online or by phone, update their toll tag accounts in advance when they expect to have enough passengers in the vehicle to qualify for discounted tolls.
It remains to be seen which vehicles will be eligible for the discount, according to Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Initially, it is likely that all vehicles with two or more passengers will qualify for the discounts at peak periods. Eventually, Morris said, the discount would have to be limited to vehicles with three or more occupants.
The motivation behind the switch is both financial and practical, Morris said. To finance large projects like the LBJ Express in Dallas and the North Tarrant Express near Fort Worth, the expected revenue from toll lanes is critical. Both projects would have had to be scaled back or delayed if all of the cars with two passengers that are expected to use the lanes had to be subsidized for the foreseeable future, he said. Also, encouraging vehicles with two passengers to use the toll lanes would have little affect on reducing congestion or improving air quality.
“At three-plus, someone’s making a conscious decision to coordinate travel patterns,” Morris said. “Fifty percent of our two-plus users don’t actually reduce their miles traveled. You were going in the same car anyway.”
This story is the third part in a four-part series on the growth of toll roads and lanes around the state. To view Part 1, an interactive map of toll projects around the state, click here. To view Part 2, a story looking at why Texas finds itself resorting to tolling so often to build new road projects, click here. To view the final part, a look at the long-term impact of Gov. Rick Perry's failed bid to build the Trans-Texas Corridor, click here.