Naked City

Toll Road Bingo: Pay to Play!

Naked City
Photo By John Anderson

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has opened the door to taking road projects out of its $2.2 billion Central Texas toll road plan, but Circle C Ranch residents shouldn't cheer too loudly. The CTRMA's largesse comes with a caveat: Those who pay will be those who play. The polite term for it is "fiscal equity."

At Monday night's meeting of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transportation Policy Board – the panel of local officials who must approve the CTRMA's toll road plan – Circle C Homeowners Association director Ed Scruggs said that homeowners in Circle C did support tolling – just not on the South MoPac bridge over William Cannon Drive, one of nine roadway segments included in the CTRMA's plan. Scruggs called the inclusion of the William Cannon bridge, already under construction, "punitive, unfair, and a gateway tax" out of the Circle C community.

Residents down Southwest also don't like the prospect of tolls on the westernmost segment of SH 45 South, which will connect them to I-35 (eventually), or on US 290 through the Y in Oak Hill. Heretofore, the CTRMA has suggested that its plan is an all-or-nothing deal, and though CAMPO board members indicated that that's not exactly carved in stone, they also made clear their distaste for changes that would allow residents of the region's wealthiest environs to get free roads while others paid tolls.

Circle C residents consider the William Cannon bridge a "done deal" – a project already paid for by the Texas Department of Transportation, and thus giving the lie to the RMA's claims that only new road capacity would be tolled. But TxDOT District Engineer Bob Daigh insists the agency's cupboard is bare; Circle C residents are only looking at what is funded in the project: the frontage roads (which lead to an enormous bottleneck at the William Cannon traffic light) plus a skeleton of the bridge-to-be. There's no current funding to actually finish the bridge, let alone keep it maintained.

Scruggs tried to make the argument that because MoPac is the only current highway route into Circle C – one of the reasons the road has been so controversial – tolling it is demonstrably unfair. Paying tolls to get to Bergstrom Airport – as also proposed by the RMA, on both Texas 71 and US 183 – makes sense, he said, because that's a destination point where there are alternate routes. (He didn't specify what those might be.) But the William Cannon bridge, he argued, will become a major artery out of the 3,200 homes in Circle C when it opens, a facility that many residents would use multiple times on a single weekend.

But Scruggs stumbled a bit when CAMPO's board chair, state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, asked just which part of town should be taxed if Circle C tolls were out of the question. That's not a question the CCHOA board had considered, Scruggs replied.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes was quick to add later that those who pay into the system should expect to get the benefits for their commitment. Otherwise, it would be just as well for those communities who agree to toll roads to refuse projects in their area. "If there is a community that does not pay into toll roads, they shouldn't receive proceeds for new roads from the tolls," Dukes said. The RMA is authorized under state law to use toll road profits on a variety of other mobility projects within Travis and Williamson counties, but it's unclear if it could legally or practically institute a pay-to-play scheme within its service area.

Of course, that assumes there will be profits, beyond the debt service on the 40-year toll revenue bonds that help fund the CTRMA plan. For the authority's first project – the US 183-A bypass around Cedar Park, which CAMPO has already approved – the reckoning will come in October, when revenue forecasts are matched with project costs. Even then, the CTRMA will bear the continuing cost of toll road maintenance, unlike the Houston system, which intends to remove its booths and hand its roads over to TxDOT once its bonds are paid off.

TxDOT District Engineer Bob Daigh pleads poverty at a toll road meeting in Circle C Ranch.

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Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, CTRMA, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, CAMPO, Circle C, toll roads, South MoPac, William Cannon, Ed Scruggs

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