Toll Roads Help Central Austin

Sal Costello is pissed that TXDOT has bribed the City of Austin with rebates on previously spent right-of-way money if they agree not to oppose these roads’ tolling.

As I’ve noted in draft form (I now hopefully have the motivation to go back and finish those posts – as I do, see the bottom of this post for links), huge chunks of bond money approved between 1997 and 2000 by City of Austin and Travis County voters were designated for “local participation” in projects like SH130, SH45, Loop1, US183, SH71, and US290 freeway and tollway extensions and expansions. This “local participation” boiled down to (in most cases) 10% of right-of-way costs + utility relocation. Doesn’t sound like much, but it added up to tens of millions of dollars each time.
What’s the rub? The city and county don’t get any money from gasoline taxes. These bonds will be repaid using city and county funds, which effectively means property and sales taxes (or in the city’s case, utility slush funds paid back by electric customers).

Note: You pay this bill no matter how much or how little you drive; no matter how efficient or inefficient your car; no matter whether you take the bus, ride your bike, or walk.

And guess who pays the most, proportionally, in property taxes? Here’s a hint: My small lot in central Austin is valued far higher than the comparatively vast Steiner Ranch lot of one of my cow orkers; more than the huge lot of one of my friends on “The Mountain”; heck, more than Sal Costello’s lot in Circle C. Most of the costs associated with city and county spending are related more to the size of the area covered rather than population density, by the way. And Sal’s getting far more lane-miles and far wider streets for his $0.50 than I am for my $1.35.

Accepting this rebate from TXDOT helps Central Austin. Of course, it requires Sal and his Circle C buddies to start paying more of their fair share instead of being subsidized by the central city (we’ll still subsidize you with our gasoline taxes when we do drive, but the property and sales tax subsidization will drop dramatically). So you can understand why the southwest and northwest Austinites are so ticked off, even if they hide behind the baloney claims of “double taxation” (I paid to park at Zilker Park last weekend; was I “double taxed”?)

Responsible City Council members should ignore this caterwauling and do what’s best for the fiscal interest of the city – which means tolling roads used disproportionately by people who either don’t pay any city taxes (because they live outside city limits) or pay relatively little. If you want less sprawl and a healthy center city, please make your voice heard.

Past highway spending in bond elections (added as I finish them over the day):

In case anybody was wondering…

Lomax’ comments about Austin not building any roads during the 1980s and 1990s are, in fact, a load of crap. That didn’t stop the media from playing them without even bothering to check up on the details, of course. Austin, in fact, built a ton of freeway miles in the 1980s and 1990s – they were overwhelmed by a growth in average miles driven per capita, which was the predictable result of opening up miles and miles of farmland to low-density suburban sprawl.

Although a few ill-advised city-destroying freeways were rejected by Austin in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s doubtful TXDOT would have had the money or the will to build any more than what eventually got built anyways. Most of the cancellations occurred long before the 1980s; Koenig Lane was the only one to survive even on plans in the modern era which isn’t now essentially built or getting built.

The 183 corridor, from I-35 west to Spicewood Springs, was upgraded to freeway in the 1980s and 1990s. So was Ben White Boulevard (290/71) from Congress to past Mopac. Mopac was extended several times during this period as well.

Full coverage at Jeb Boyt’s site, and I agree with Keath that the TTI’s motivation is to spin things to support big transportation projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Capital Metro, Empty Buses, and Farebox Recovery Ratio

The local asshats are at it again, slamming Capital Metro for supposedly running empty buses.
See here and here and here for reasons why suburbanites always think buses are empty (they’re wrong – most Capital Metro buses are carrying a substantial number of passengers).

As regards farebox recovery (in short, the amount of cost covered by passenger fare), the asshats are ‘right’ – Capital Metro’s number is low. As I used to keep telling them when they’d come for their quarterly report to our commission, if you run programs like the free rides on Ozone Action Days and the free rides for UT students at night (E-bus) and don’t account for them separately, you leave yourself open for getting hammered on an extremely low farebox recovery ratio. And by “account for them separately” I don’t mean “after the local libertarians get the media to claim you’re wasting your money”; I mean “go as far as transferring 10% of your funds to the Clean Air Force and them have them contract with you for the Ozone Action Day rides just like you do with UT for the UT Shuttle”.

Of course they didn’t listen. Capital Metro operates in the same center-city echo-chamber that most of the bicycle advocates I work with live in. My role on the UTC, while it lasted, was largely an effort to smash out of that box and get them to realize that there’s a world out there past the intersection of 183 and Mopac, and it’s got more voters in it every day.

By the way, the “farebox recovery ratio” for the private automobile is about as low as Capital Metro’s artificially low number given above. As the last few days have hopefully shown, especially as you get close to the center-city, most major roads aren’t paid for out of the gas tax (or tolls) – they’re paid for with bonds which have to be floated every few years by the city and county and are repaid with property and sales taxes. Ironically, much of the strongest opposition to the local toll road plan comes from the same group hammering Capital Metro here. Guess what, folks? A toll paid when you drive on a particular road brings you UP to the level that the transit passenger is ALREADY AT. Gas taxes don’t even come close to paying your bills.

The “Exit Test”: Suburb vs. City: Major Roads, from I-35

The “Exit Test”:

Another way to show the discrepancy in road funding in our area is to look at freeway intersections. (In this case, our definition of “major road” is a road which is mentioned in a marked exit from the freeway – in some places due to the frontage-road-centric design of highways here, multiple major roads have the same exit).

Using a current list of exits, let’s look at Round Rock through Austin. To make things even more fair for the suburbanites, and not coincidentally to make it simpler for my transcription, I’m only going to use the part of Austin north of the upper/lower-deck split (which leaves out the densest part of Austin where 100% of the exits are for locally-funded roadways).
Round Rock:

  • Exit 256: FM 1431 (state-system)
  • Exit 254: Business Route IH-35 (state-system) and FM 3406 (state-system)
  • Exit 253A: “frontage road”
  • Exit 253: US 79 (state-system)
  • Exit 252B: RM 620 (state-system)
  • Exit 252A: McNeil Rd (local-system: Round Rock)
  • Exit 251: Business Route IH-35 (state-system)
  • Exit 250: FM 1325 (state-system)

Out of 7 exits with a road mentioned, only one is for a roadway which is locally funded; while 6 are for state-funded roadways.
Now, the exits between Round Rock and the city limits of Austin:

  • Exit 248: Grand Avenue Parkway (local-system: Travis County and Pflugerville)
  • Exit 247: FM 1825 (state-system)

Finally, the exits which are for roads which cross I-35 within the city limits of Austin:

  • Exit 246: Dessau Rd and Howard Lane (both local-system: Travis County and Austin)
  • Exit 245: FM 734 Parmer Lane (state-system) and Yager Lane (local-system: mostly Austin)
  • Exit 243: Braker Lane (local-system: Austin)
  • Exit 241: Rutherford Lane (local-system: Austin) and Rundberg Lane (local-system: Austin)
  • Exit 240AB: US 183 (state-system)
  • Exit 239: St Johns Ave (local-system: Austin)
  • Exit 238B: US 290 (state-system), FM 2222 (state-system)
  • Exit 238: 51st St. and others: all local-system
  • Exit 237: Airport Blvd (local-system west of I-35, state-system east of I-35 as Loop 111) and 38½ Street (local-system)

Out of 9 exits listed here, 8 are for roadways which are locally funded, and 4 are for roadways which receive state funding. (Obviously some exits are for both).
A reminder again: I used the part of Austin which has the MOST state-funded roadways in it (since I stopped short of the upper/lower-deck split two miles north of downtown where the arterials come fast and furious and NONE of them get state funding).
Resources used in this article:

The “HEB test”

What is the “HEB test”?

In central Austin, most people drive (or even, gasp, WALK!) from their home to the closest major grocery store (i.e. non-convenience store) without driving one inch on a roadway which is part of the state highway system because most major roads in central Austin are city-funded streetsnot so in Round Rock or other bedrom communities; the vast majority there would not only choose to but MUST head out to FM 620 or 1825 or 685 or even I-35 to shop for anything of consequence.

For instance, from my house north of UT, these major grocery stores are the ones we shop at more than once a year. We drive to EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM without using any part of the state highway system (yes, we shop at all of these, in order of frequency). (We sometimes walk to a couple of these, and have biked to one):

  • Central Market (38th/Lamar)
  • HEB at Hancock Center
  • Randall’s on 35th
  • Whole Foods (6th/Lamar)
  • Fresh Plus on Duval/43rd
  • Randall’s at Exposition across from Casis
  • Randall’s at Exposition/Lake Austin
  • Wheatsville Co-op (Guadalupe/30th)

Try the same test sometime in your neighborhood. When applied over a set of neighborhoods in a geographic area, I think the “HEB test” is a good indicator of how much (or how little) of your major street network is funded by the state. (Remember! Roads which don’t have a route shield on them, like FM 1325 or US 183, are not parts of the state highway system, and thus are ineligible for all state gas tax money and most federal gas tax money!)

This test is a useful proxy for the claim (made by me and others knowledgeable about urban planning) that gasoline taxes effectively subsidize the suburbs – the typical dweller of the suburbs spends a much higher percentage of his “drive” on roads which actually get money back from the gas tax than does the corresponding center-city resident.

Many More Major Roads In The Suburbs DO Get Gas Tax Money

Same exercise as the last entry of this type. I couldn’t get the scale exactly right – this section of Round Rock / Pflugerville is actually quite a bit larger than the corresponding section of Central Austin. (There’s a “zoomed in” PDF of central Austin which I used for the original source – if I zoom in with a similar scale to this section of Round Rock, the lines are so thick as to be unusable).

Arterials which are part of the state highway system and thus get gas tax money:

  • IH-35
  • Parmer Lane (FM 734)
  • RM 620
  • SH 45
  • FM 1825
  • US 79
  • FM 1431 (olive green in far upper left corner)
  • FM 685 (north-south road colored olive green lower right corner)

(I can’t list all the roads on here that aren’t part of the state highway system because I don’t know many of their names – some of them don’t even currently exist – they are planned to be built sometime in the future by Round Rock and Williamson County).
Note that a much higher proportion of major roads in the southern Round Rock area are maintained by the state. In fact, it is unlikely that a resident of a neighborhood in this area will be able to pass the “HEB test”.

Most Major Roads In Cities Don’t Get Any Gas Tax

This entry is going to serve as background for a future entry about the gasoline tax, new proposed “miles driven tax”, and tolls. It will probably be of little interest in isolation, so you might want to wait for the commentary later.

This map (click for larger version) is from a map of central Austin from the 2025 CAMPO plan. Every road which is colored something other than black is classified as an arterial (major roadway). Note that the axis of Austin’s grid is off – north-south in these comments refer to the roads that go diagonally off to the northeast.

The following arterial roadways on the image are part of the state highway system, and thus, eligible for gasoline tax money from the state:

  • Mopac Expressway (north-south thick green line on left)
  • I-35 (north-south thick red line on right – leaves screen)
  • FM 2222 / Koenig Lane (east-west road at north end of image which starts as purple on the west end and switches to blue at Mopac)
  • FM 2244 (small segment in extreme lower left of image colored olive green)

The following arterial roadways on this image are not part of the state highway system and have typically not received any gas tax money, either state or federal, for construction or maintenance:

North-south roads, roughly from left to right:

  • Westlake Drive (pinkish road near Lake Austin on far left)
  • Redbud Trail (small segment of pink crossing Lake Austin)
  • Exposition Blvd (pink and purple road west of Mopac)
  • Burnet Road (blue road starting at 45th St and heading north – at US 183 it turns into FM 1325 which is part of the state system
  • Lamar Blvd (blue then purple then blue then olive green covering entire map segment)
  • Guadalupe St. (purple then blue then purple then joining Lamar Blvd north of 45th St)
  • Lavaca St. (forms one-way couplet with Guadalupe downtown)
  • Congress Ave. (brown street in downtown grid)
  • Colorado St., Brazos St. (two purple streets in downtown grid not otherwise mentioned)
  • Red River St. (purple street just west of I-35)
  • Chicon St. (I think) – pink north-south street on extreme lower right

East-West Streets, roughly from top to bottom

  • Justin Lane (I think) – purple/pink at very top, ending at Lamar
  • Hancock / North Loop – purple road starting at Mopac and heading east
  • 45th St. – purple road starting at Mopac, changing to blue between Lamar and Guadalupe, then back to purple
  • 35th / 38th St. – starts as purple west of Mopac, changes to blue east of Mopac and then pink
  • Dean Keeton / 26th St – starts as blue/purple then changes to green, crosses I-35 and turns blue.
  • Windsor / 24th St – starts as purple at Exposition, crosses Mopac and ends at Guadalupe
  • MLK / 19th St – starts as pink at Lamar, changes to purple and crosses I-35
  • Enfield / 15th St – starts as pink at Lake Austin, changes to purple at Exposition, crosses Mopac and turns into 15th St.
  • 12th St. – starts at Lamar as purple then changes to blue, ends at Capitol, restarts after Capitol as blue, crosses I-35 and heads northwest as purple.
  • 11th St. – starts as purple at Guadalupe, heads east to I-35, turns pink after I-35.
  • Downtown grid: 8th, 7th Sts
  • Lake Austin Blvd – from Enfield Road at lake, turns into 5th and 6th sts.
  • 5th and 6th sts from Mopac to I-35
  • Cesar Chavez / 1st St from Mopac to I-35 (just north of Town Lake)
  • Barton Springs Road (small segment of blue in extreme lower left)



Keep in mind that, by terms laid out in the Constitution of the State of Texas, none of the roadways in the much larger list can receive state gas tax money. And in practice, none of them really receive federal gas tax money either, since the practice at CAMPO (the local board that disburses federal gas tax money returned to the state under various programs)is to disburse pretty much all of the available roadway funds to state highway projects.
In other words, when you drive on Lamar Blvd in central Austin, you’re paying gasoline tax to the state, but the city (who has to pay to rebuild the roadway when necessary, as just occurred over the last 2 years) doesn’t see one penny of that money. When you see construction on 38th St, the city is paying those bills with your property and sales taxes, not with the gas tax you incur while driving.
(corrected MLK / FM 969 on 2/23 – FM 969 does not start until Airport Blvd, which is off the map)

Observations from a car-less week

So I’ve spent all week without the car – on Monday, I biked to work (my stepson and I rode our bikes west to Casis, and then I rode all the way in to work – and boy was it tiring; I’m very out of shape); so out-of-shape that I ended up taking the bus home. Then, Tuesday, the car wouldn’t start. Since then, we’ve learned that the alternator broke and supercharged the (nearly dead) battery and nearly done blowed it up. The garage still hasn’t figured out how to make it work, so I’ve been busing it ever since (including today).

Big deal, huh? Well, son, I work in northwest Austin in the software bidness. (My last job had two offices; both about 5 miles west of 360 on 2244 and 2222 respectively; this one is at least in the 183 corridor).

This is my second long stretch in Austin without a car – I went for two weeks without my old convertible at my last job and had to bike in 8 days in a row (a much more difficult bike commute than I have now, but I was in better shape then too) – the bus is not an option in that part of town – closest bus stop to the office was more than five miles away. The office at my current job is far more favorable for bus use – I can use either the express buses or the #3, both of which I board at 38th and Medical Parkway. The express bus drops me off 5 minutes (by foot) to the north of my office and the #3 drops me off 5 minutes south – when I’m early to the bus stop I’ll often take a #3 which takes longer but arrives slightly earlier, for instance.

Most days this week, I took the “express” bus (983 or 983 depending on which way). The trip into work consists of a 15-minute walk to the bus stop (except for the day my wife dropped me off on her way to Casis); a 20-minute bus ride; and the 5-minute walk to work. Not too bad compared to a 15-minute drive — basically the walk makes it worthwhile. The problem is the trip home – the bus takes considerably longer due to Mopac traffic, and is even less reliable than the car (and of course in the car you can escape Mopac at a couple of places and try to make up some time).

Anyways, the work commute: not bad. Could I do this every day? Yes. I’d use the bike more (if nothing more than to get home quicker from the bus stop). I’d have to get better rain gear (I got rained on the most the day I biked, ironically).

But am I saving money on the work commute right now? Not unless we completely get rid of that car. The fare for the express bus is $1.00 each way ($0.50 for the slower #3 bus which I could also take). Half-price ticket booklets bring it down to $1.00 round-trip. This calculator shows how much this daily trip really costs in my car, once you dispense with the fiction that you should amortize fixed costs like insurance and maintenance over each trip. Even with half-price tickets, I save a whopping eight cents a day.

Now, what about getting rid of the car entirely? Now we’re talking, especially since the cost of repairs (so far) are almost what I consider this car worth in total. Well, experience from this week shows that we’re almost, but not quite, ready to be a one-car household.

  • Work commute: See above. No problem, basically; I could do it.
  • School trips: Every other week, my stepson lives at our house, and has to be taken to school in the morning. I could bike more often with him, but not every day (we can’t even do two consecutive days now since my wife picks him up in a car which can’t take his bike home). Next year? Probably stops being an impediment as he moves on to middle school at either O’Henry or Kealing, both of which lie on the combined 21/22 bus route (which he’ll be taking anyways even if we remain a 2-car family). I f we had planned ahead a little more, he could probably be doing this now (the bus runs right by Casis too), but I plan on riding with him at least a few times first, and haven’t done it yet.
  • After-work appointments: This was the big problem. My wife has a weekly meeting at 5:30 on Wednesdays, for which I have to be home at 5:10 to watch the baby. There’s no way to do this feasibly taking the bus – I’d have to stop my workday at about 4:00, which is simply not going to happen in my line of work. Also, we both have a weekly meeting on Thursdays at 5:10 – same problem. This week, I went home at lunch on Wednesday and worked at home — this works for occasional emergencies, but not as a regular thing. On Thursday, she had to get the babysitter earlier than usual and come pick me up. Also not going to work as a regular thing.

We’ve failed on the Thursday meeting in the sense that we acquired a regular engagement which I can’t get to on the bus. I could theoretically bike there in about 20 minutes — but this is not the type of thing I can do all sweaty. I don’t know if anything other than opting out could fix Wednesday.

So we’re repairing the car this time, and I’ll continue to wish I didn’t have to. We’re looking at at least $500 in repairs (on a car I figure is worth $500-$1000), about $400/year in insurance, about $200/year in various other fixed costs. All for two lousy meetings a week.

That’s what you get when you have a half-assed transit system — people who in other cities could live with just one car (and wouldn’t mind doing so) can’t even do it. Unfortunately, nothing but massive densification of the urban core could solve this problem for us, and even then, Capital Metro hoodwinked enough people with the commuter rail debacle such that the urban core of Austin won’t have competitive transit service for essentially ever. C’est la car.

11:00 update: Now the engine computer needs to be replaced. Bare minimum, if we do it through the shop and use refurb parts: another $500 for a total of $1000. Argh. My wife is checking now to find out how much we’re already on the hook for if we bail, and then I get to go price cheap used cars. Hooray for economic disaster! Man, I hate cars.

Libertarians and Public Highways

Yesterday, local pseudo-libertarian Jeff Ward was speaking out on his show against the recently passed toll road plan. I’m not going to talk about whether the plan is good or bad (In my role on the Mostly Ignored Transportation Advisory Commission, I voted for it as a lesser of two evils myself with some amendments to handle some things I didn’t like), but about something which is increasingly common these days – that being Libertarians Who Love Them Some Good Old Fashioned Government Pork As Long As It’s In The Form Of Suburban Highways. (LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSH for short).
And just a minute ago, two winger-leaning cow orkers came over to get an education on toll roads. They also fall into this category.

So, one would assume that libertarians would be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, gas taxes (and worse, property taxes) are a very blunt instrument. People pay who don’t even use the facilities that get the money (for instance, people who drive on major arterials in the city of Austin are usually not on roads that get any state gas tax money, which by state law can only go to state highways). The money isn’t even remotely related to the facility you’re on (drive on I-35 and you’re funding construction of Mopac North). And with our own dysfunctional funding scheme here in Austin, you pay (via property and sales taxes) for not only major arterials such as Lamar Blvd, but also for right-of-way for state highway expansions even if you don’t own a car.

So when I turned on the radio, I would logically have expected Jeff Ward, he of the “show me the business plan for transit” theory, to be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, the funding is more directly related to the use (you use, you pay; you don’t use, you don’t pay). Ths is Libertarian 101.

You can guess, however, from where this is going that he doesn’t believe that way.

No, Jeff, like most self-identified libertarians I’ve met, loves our Socialist Highway System. Because, you see, he uses it every day, so it must be an example of Good Big Government. And he never gets to talk to any of the people who use Capital Metro every day, so that’s obviously Bad Big Government.

Those LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers love to complain that transit is bad because it gets most of its money out of a tax that most of us pay which is not related to our use (zero, some, or lots) of the system. They like to point out how little of the cost of one trip on the system is paid for at the time of boarding by the rider. Well, guess what, LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers? The same damn thing is true for road funding, at a much larger scale. I pay property taxes and sales taxes to Austin, which uses them to build and maintain most of its major arterials with no contribution from the gas tax. I get no rebate on the days I don’t drive. When I do drive, I drive most of my trips on those roads that Austin pays for; so my gas taxes go mainly out to the ‘burbs, where a much higher percentage of their major infrastructure receives gas-tax funding.

You know, I don’t like these roads being built either way. But I know damn well that having them built and having the people who chose to live out in the hinterlands pay some of the costs of their destructive choices is far superior than having them built and having us all pay out of generic gas taxes and property taxes and sales taxes. At least this way, when Joe Suburbia goes looking for houses, he’ll have to think of the cost of his choice.
I guess that makes me a better libertarian than Jeff Ward.

And please don’t talk to me about any of the following winger talking points on either side:

  1. We paid for them already. (No, you didn’t. Mostly, people in the urban core paid the bills for you).
  2. Double-taxation is wrong. (I don’t care. From an efficiency perspective – i.e. moving the most people for the least cost, you absolutely must use some form of congestion pricing, even if it’s the blunt instrument of tolls which don’t change by the time of day).
  3. You’re paving the Springs (Yes, but the other alternative was building these same roads as free roads, which would have been even worse as an incentive for sprawl over the aquifer).

Addendum

This morning I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway (near Lamar). I boarded the 983 express bus, and paid a “toll” of $1.00 (actually 50c since I bought discount tickets a while back). I was “double-taxed” since I also pay for Capital Metro with my sales tax dollars. Oh, the humanity.