Toll Roads May Take a (Minor) Detour

Krusee contemplates changing strategy, but not retreat

State Rep. Mike Krusee
State Rep. Mike Krusee (Photo By John Anderson)

State Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock), chair of the House Transportation Committee, says it is time to make some changes to regional mobility authorities, but before toll road opponent Sal Costello takes a victory lap around the Capitol, he probably needs to understand that the changes won't make toll roads go away.

The fact that Central Texas was the first to create an RMA – and that Krusee sits on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board, which has to approve the Central Texas RMA's transportation plans – is probably no coincidence. Krusee had Central Texas in mind when he penned the bill creating RMAs back in 2001, frustrated by the fact that Dell Computer chose Tennessee over Round Rock when it came time to build a new plant, for reasons having everything to do with the gridlock of Central Texas traffic.

Krusee may have hoped to get roads on the ground fast with the Central Texas RMA. But he didn't expect the backlash from the RMA's $2.2 billion toll plan, which has led to a flurry of protests and made toll roads the topic du jour of local talk radio. In hindsight, it's led the lawmaker to consider what needs to be done to clean up some of the controversial elements of his bill.

"I think without a doubt we may well consider some modifications," Krusee said after last week's House Transportation Committee meeting. Prompted to identify some of the changes he might consider, Krusee said, "Most of the concerns about toll roads are focused on the definition of a conversion and the how and when of it. When will a road be converted, and how will the road be converted? That will be the main focus."

The much-maligned South MoPac bridge over William Cannon, a short highway segment included in the RMA toll plan, forced the issue, with opponents hammering Krusee over being "double-taxed" to finish a road already under construction. Krusee had made it clear in his law that he wanted conversion of "tax roads" to toll roads to be a locally controlled issue. But the point at which the state passes the baton on a project to the RMA lies within what Krusee calls "a gray area."

That's not necessarily how it's seen by CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein. He says the Texas Department of Transportation has given the RMAs the right to convert roads to toll roads "up to the point they take down the barricades" and open those projects to traffic. That may be too big a window for Krusee's liking – or that of his constituents. Krusee is talking about changes to legislation to make sure conversion guidelines are clearer, and possibly more conservative.

Southwest Austin residents may have lost the war over the William Cannon bridge, but they certainly have won some battles. Mayor Will Wynn, in an amendment approved as part of the July vote by the CAMPO board, took the eventual South MoPac toll proceeds out of the pot to be used to service the revenue bonds financing the system, and instead directed the reinvestment of those funds into sound walls, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and other improvements on MoPac from William Cannon to downtown.

And now Heiligenstein is talking about variable tolling on the William Cannon bridge, charging a reduced price for frequent drivers of the toll lanes, or perhaps lower toll rates during earlier implementation phases of the project. Those decisions will be made during the public involvement process, which is going to be quick. Tolls on the William Cannon bridge will be implemented next April.

But if Costello and the Austin Toll Party think this all means that Texas is out on a limb with toll roads, they would be wrong. Testimony before the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday focused on efforts in Virginia, New Mexico, and Florida; state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin), who chairs the CAMPO board, sat in on the discussion. The message to House members was that the use of public and private toll roads, and other kinds of public-private partnerships and privatized asset management, are not the wave of the transportation future – they're the status quo, with plenty of states implementing them.

And the concept of toll roads has plenty of friends in high places. In his annual address to the Texas Transportation Summit in Irving in August, U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay told the audience that he supported the right of states to toll new and existing highways. "Innovative, flexible financing tools are the only way we're going to meet all the needs we will have in the future, and I am open to new ideas, like allowing states to choose toll credits for federally funded projects, if they wish," DeLay said. "Through initiatives like this, we can start to pivot the paradigm of transportation policy in this country ... away from simply accommodating growth and toward a new vision accommodating citizen mobility."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

toll roads, regional mobility authority, RMA, Central Texas RMA, Mike Krusee, House Transportation Committee, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, CAMPO, Mike Heiligenstein, Sal Costello, Austin Toll Party, South MoPac, William Cannon

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