Toll Road Plan Remains in Fast Lane

But Gerald Daugherty (of all people) wants to slow road-building down

Toll Road Plan Remains in Fast Lane
Illustration By Jason Stout

The fact that it's Travis Co. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, of all people, asking the region to slow down on road construction is a bit of an irony. Daugherty is the great champion of Central Texas road building, the man who almost single-handedly defeated the light rail proposal in Austin. Yet there he was at last week's Travis County Republican Party luncheon, asking the group to lobby the governor for another six months to come up with a comprehensive regional road plan rather than moving forward on the proposed $2.2 billion toll road system for Central Texas.

"If you know me very well, you know I don't mind taking a few arrows for what I think is right," Daugherty told the luncheon crowd at Green Pastures. "I've gotten 5,000 e-mails in the last six days in opposition to this plan. I don't think that anybody ever thought in their wildest imagination that this is what was going to be put together when we talked about a regional road plan. I think this is a patchwork plan of a toll system."

On Monday night, the 23-member Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transportation Policy Board is scheduled to vote on the amendments to the CAMPO 2025 plan that would put the $2.2 billion toll road plan in motion. Daugherty wants to slow down the process, although the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has stressed that it's imperative to meet an August deadline to apply for funding from the Texas Mobility Fund. The CTRMA, the Texas Department of Transportation, and local toll road backers on CAMPO have argued for months that the only way to get needed new highway capacity in the Austin metro area – at least within our lifetimes – is to embrace a toll strategy. Not only does the CTRMA plan depend on the revenues raised by toll-backed bonds, it also presumes state funding that, plan backers say, would only be available if the roads were tolled, and would go to Houston and Dallas if Austin balks on tolls.

By "patchwork," Daugherty is referring to the CTRMA plan's small toll projects intended to connect existing roadways, such as improvements to the Y (U.S. 290 and Texas 71) in Oak Hill and to South MoPac between U.S. 290 and William Cannon Drive. In some cases, commuters would be forced to go from "tax road" to toll road back to tax road – or stay on the frontage road and fight the red lights and bottlenecks – a scenario that the CTRMA has said would be impossible to avoid to complete the region's road system. The proposed toll-pass technology – with electronic monitors mounted on overpasses and bills sent to drivers in the mail – makes such short segments feasible. Other segments of the CTRMA plan are longer – such as U.S. 183-A in Cedar Park, or the approaches to the airport from I-35 on both U.S. 183 (Ed Bluestein) and Texas 71 (Ben White); all of the segments would have a "toll-free alternative," i.e., frontage roads.

The RMA has been fairly firm about trying to maintain an "all or nothing" toll system proposal, for fear of tinkering too much with the revenue end of the picture. The South MoPac segment alone is expected to generate an annual revenue of $20 million in tolls, far from small change given that the Central Texas RMA will have to both maintain the toll road system and pay back $405 million in bonds over the next 40 years.

Daugherty's position, shared with state Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin), is that he'll support toll roads, as long as they're the right toll roads. Both have gotten plenty of heat from their constituents for the inclusion of the William Cannon bridge ramp in the toll road plan. But to Daugherty, it's not just about one bridge. He's looking for a plan he can sell to his constituents, and he says the RMA plan just isn't it.

It's no secret that Daugherty still has his eye on Capital Metro's one-cent sales tax, which generates $120 million per year. The transit agency has for years operated existing bus service on less than that, and Daugherty would like to plow the rest into new road construction. But time to sell that plan is not on Daugherty's side. So far, Daugherty and Keel look to be on the losing side of the toll road proposal, despite the pleas of suburban residents on the north and south fringes of the metro area. (Keel's colleague Todd Baxter claims to remain undecided.)

Almost all of the region's Texas House members hold seats on the CAMPO board, as do Sens. Gonzalo Barrientos (the chair) and Steve Ogden, and other than Keel and maybe Baxter, the legislators appear inclined to give the plan a nod because it provides new roads across the county and region. That appeals to reps from districts east of I-35, which would be far less likely to see new roads if transportation funding were allocated solely on population growth. At the county level, commissioners in both Travis and Williamson counties already have forked over hundreds of millions of dollars for right-of-way acquisition and road construction, without making much of a dent in the congestion problem.

And while urban leaders – like Austin Mayor Will Wynn and the three other City Council members on the CAMPO board – would like to also see changes to the toll road plan to help it better meet their needs, it's unlikely that they'd seek to deep-six the entire plan as Daugherty suggests. Austin progressive groups like Liveable City and the Save Our Springs Alliance have come out against the toll plan, but for reasons very different from Daugherty's – calling it yet another sacrifice of the region's uniqueness to the gods of sprawl. So far, attempts to build an ad hoc coalition between Austin greens and Daugherty's suburban road warriors appear to have met with limited success.

Already, CAMPO's technical advisory committee has given the toll road plan its seal of approval. That's unsurprising, since none of the CTRMA's road projects are actually "new" – they're all included in CAMPO's existing 2025 plan. (The amendment up for approval Monday has to do with the tolls, not with the roads.) And after years of trying to convince citizens that there is no Road Fairy that can build highways without taxes or tolls, state transportation leaders say Austin has run out of options.

At last week's GOP luncheon, Daugherty was challenged by Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock), the chair of the House Transportation Committee and the author of the bill that created the CTRMA, who noted that everyone likes the idea of toll roads as long as it's someone else paying the tolls. Krusee suggested a plea from Democrat-dominated Austin to "slow it down" – even if echoed by conservative Republicans – would likely fall on deaf ears at the Capitol. "Houston and Dallas have two-thirds of the state's economy and enormous needs. We have a history of doing nothing for decades," Krusee said. "You know what they're going to say if you ask them to wait six months? 'Oh, the usual Austin response.'"

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