The Big Talk About Toll Roads – Part One

Yesterday’s enjoyable lunch with Dave Dobbs reminded me that I intended to write this short piece, entitled “Why You Should Support (At Least Most Of) The Toll Road Plan Even If You Hate Sprawl”.

So, there’s this big plan out there to build a bunch of toll roads. Well, not exactly. Realistically, the plan is to add toll lanes to a bunch of existing roads, and build a few new toll roads. The new toll lanes would be freeway-quality; some of the existing roads’ capacity would be shifted to free frontage roads. This provides ammunition for the (false, but compelling) claim that existing roads are being ‘converted’ to toll roads, which I’ll explore in detail perhaps in a later posting.

The assumption is that if you care about the center city, and you hate sprawl, that you should be against this plan. Well, I love the center city. I hate the suburbs. I think gas needs to be a lot more expensive. I ride my bike to work a couple days a week. And yet, I’m going to support this plan.

Most of this plan was already on the books in one way or another. For instance, the long-range CAMPO plan always had an upgrade planned for Loop 360 (usually “expressway 6”, meaning 6 lanes and probably some more grade separation; by CAMPO’s terminology “expressway” indicates some separation but still some traffic lights). That means that sooner or later, these roads would have been built, with a combination of woefully underfunded state gas tax dollars, CAMPO-controlled federal gas tax dollars, and a dollop of city, county, and even Capital Metro funding from property and sales taxes.

Read that again. Most of these roads would be built anyways. That’s the first assumption you need to buy into in order to support these toll roads, and some people simply don’t. That’s fine, but at least understand the reasoning before you go on.

Why would these roads be built anyways? 99% of the drivers in this area think we don’t build enough roads. Yes, they’re wrong. Yes, informed people disagree. But those drivers are 99% of the population. You’ve got a lot of work to do to change their minds. I say good luck to you sir.

So, we’re stuck between choosing a slow buildout of free freeways like the US 183 creeper northwest, or a quick buildout by some other means. Some people suggest simply raising the gas tax. While this would address the impact on non-drivers (I, personally, hate the fact that City of Austin general fund monies go to pay for roadways like US 183 which not only don’t provide pedestrian accomodation, but are actively hostile to later accomodation – future paper on this subject to come), it doesn’t address the city/suburb equity problem.

Consider this: if I drive 10 miles through the city on S 1st St., Lavaca, Guadalupe, and Lamar; and my vehicle gets 20 mpg, I pay about 18 cents in gas tax, about a dime of that to the state. If my friend drives 10 miles through Round Rock on FM 620, he pays 18 cents in gas tax, about a dime of that to the state.
However, the state gas tax money (and the overwhelming majority of the federal gas tax money) is dedicated to roadways like FM 620. In fact, the state gas tax money cannot, by law, be spent on city roads (even major arterials).

So what’s the big deal? Look at a bunch of streets sometime and see what roads have route symbols on them and what don’t. (You might be fooled by Loop 343 through town on some maps – that’s old data; the signs on the street are the only reliable judge). Anything with a “SH”, “FM”, “RM”, “Loop”, “US”, or “Interstate” on it is getting gas tax money. Anything without is not. In most cases, not even federal gas tax money (on average, one major non-state-highway project per year gets a dollop of federal gas tax money through CAMPO’s process).

So most of the big roads in the City of Austin don’t get any gas tax money. This means that they must be funded by property and sales taxes. For instance, if one was going north from the river and looking at major E-W routes, all downtown streets (including Cesar Chavez); all numbered streets; Anderson Lane; Steck; basically every road between the river and US 183 with the exception of FM2222 is paid for by the city. And the same is true for N-S routes – such as Burnet Rd (south of US 183), Lamar Blvd. (ditto), Guadalupe, Red River, etc.

On the other hand, towns like Round Rock and Cedar Park have a much higher proportion of their infrastructure as signed and marked state highway routes (or US, which is really state under the covers). Go drive around and check it out if you don’t believe me.

So the gas tax is inequitable to city drivers and encourages sprawl. Most of the gas tax money you pay while driving around Austin goes to the ‘burbs.
So building these roads by increasing the gas tax is a bit more optimal than what we do now, but not much.

Finally, there’s the choice of tolling the roads. This, at least, only hits the people who use the road. So the people who chose to live in areas which now must be served with expensive roadways pay for the trouble, at least. And the future option exists to use this toll money to improve other modes of transportation (again: the state gas tax, by law, cannot be used on anything but highways; tolls have no such restriction).

So what about the argument that these toll roads will encourage more sprawl? Well, it’s possible. There’s two basic subarguments here, that I’ll address quickly:

  1. That adding capacity, even toll capacity, encourages people to move further out. I do believe this to be the case – but it’s less of an effect than adding free capacity would have been. And as said above, I don’t believe that not adding the capacity at all is a realistic option given the feelings of 99% of drivers.
  2. That the interests holding the bonds will have an economic incentive to produce more development in these areas in order to ensure adequate economic return (i.e.: the guys loaning the money need to make sure the supply of drivers fills the tollbooths). I find this less believable, because I think that most of the projects in this plan are going in corridors where sufficient demand for improved travel already exists, as long as the tolls are relatively low. Ironically, a toll project which sailed through with far less opposition (SH 130) seems to me to be a much worse bet. I have no problem believing current drivers will pay tolls today to travel up and down Loop 360 at twice current speed, in other words; but I don’t believe SH 130 is going to fill its coffers anytime soon.

The final bit is to analyze the projects and see which ones make sense and which might not, although I’ve already said that I think that at least one project under construction (SH 130) is worse than any of these. The RMA doesn’t want us to think this way, because they’re relying on an economic package consisting of all of the roads put together (i.e. they think they need the dollars from the better ones to pay for the weaker ones, and they need the capacity from the weaker ones to feed the better ones). This argument, while I disagree with it, is more defensible than many would have you believe – it’s the same argument transit supporters use to support little-travelled late-night trips on major routes (am I going to commit to riding the bus if it’s not going to be there the one night I work late?).

But I’ll analyze them anyways, because that’s what I’m supposed to do. When I rate revenue, I’m assuming no new development of any kind (in other words, this is based on my subjective opinion of existing traffic demand).

Already underway:

  • US 183A – seems a poor candidate for revenue to me, but it was already approved.
  • SH 130 – very poor candidate for revenue, but it was already approved.
  • SH 45 N – good candidate for revenue, already approved.
  • Loop 1 N – good candidate for revenue, already approved.
  • SH 45 SE – marginal candidate for revenue, already approved. (Remind me to write an article about the 45 naming sometime – TXDOT is still keeping alive the Outer Loop through shenanigans like this).

New proposal:

  • “Y” in Oak Hill – SH 71 phase – very good candidate (neighborhood very opposed since they assumed they were getting free capacity, but this does NOT qualify as “converting a free road”)
  • US 183 in East Austin – very good candidate (airport traffic tends to seek predictable routes even at higher expense)
  • SH 71 Southeast Austin – very good candidate (same as above)
  • Loop 1 S (SH 71 to William Cannon) – dubious candidate (short segment, unclear how feasible tolling it wll be). Seems like a stupid idea to toll a small segment in the middle of a long free stretch.
  • SH 45 S from Loop 1 to 1626 – dubious candidate, and opposed by the City of Austin.
  • “Y” in Oak Hill – US 290 phase – same as 71 phase.
  • Loop 360 – Bee Caves (2244) to Walsh Tarlton – very good candidate.
  • Loop 360 – remaining segments (as franchise) – would be good candidates. I don’t understand the desire to have one part of this road operated by the RMA and the rest by a franchise – this seems stupid (would be better to do it all one or the other).

OK, back to work.