CAMPO Plans Toll-Free Chat
Monday night's CAMPO meeting started out with the TPB chair, state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, scheduling a hearing to pull the controversial William Cannon bridge on South MoPac out of the CTRMA's $2.2 billion toll plan. Part of the argument came down to the fact it just didn't make sense for drivers to pay tolls on a brief stretch of bridge, only to be funneled back into a MoPac bottleneck. Revenue thus lost would be made up, under tentative plans under discussion by local and state transportation types, by toll revenue from future additional "managed lanes" on MoPac north of Town Lake.
But then Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, suggested that the CTRMA should also defer tolls on segments of U.S. 183 and Texas 71 east of I-35 until those toll roads are complete, in the name of toll equity for North and East Austin, as well as Southwest Austin. Her Lege colleague Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, chair of the House Transportation Committee, was quick to add his name to that policy request, and TxDOT district engineer Bob Daigh chimed in that it wouldn't make sense to make people pay for tolls on the two roads and then be stopped by construction and red lights.
In the traditional toll road model, road segments are opened as they are completed. So a driver may be paying for a two-mile segment of travel while the final five miles of the segment are still being completed. It gives the toll road authority the ability to both draw revenue and build loyalty to particular toll roads. But the backing away from the model in Central Texas raises the question of just how the toll-revenue bonds the CTRMA aims to sell to pay for its road projects will be paid back. In early toll policy discussions, the CTRMA board has talked about two months of free tolls for those who open toll tag accounts. The proposals on the table at CAMPO would extend this revenue-free period to at least two years.
This will become a real issue next spring, when bonds on the $178 million U.S. 183-A project in the Northwest Corridor will go out to market about the same time construction starts. Next year's CTRMA budget includes $56 million to build U.S. 183-A; the Federal Highway Administration is still considering a $50 million loan application from the CTRMA to cover the initial cost of construction.