Mobilizing the Truth About Toll Roads
Central Texas has a diverse set of mobility needs, and limited public funding to build the infrastructure we need. One way to close that gap and expedite the delivery of a roadway network that keeps our region moving is through the use of tolling. Tolling is merely one piece of the mobility puzzle; a tool by which timelier infrastructure expansion is made possible. But it’s also the piece of the puzzle that garners the most public attention, and with that attention comes misconceptions.
We know it’s easy to become confused when there is so much misinformation floating around. We’d like to take the opportunity to provide some clarity and separate fact from fiction.
We’d like to mobilize the truth about tolling. Here are some key facts about toll roads:
The funds raised by the gas tax are paying for new road construction.
- The state and federal governments have not increased their respective portions of the gas tax since 1991 and 1993.
- Gas taxes are fixed based on cents per gallon, and are not indexed for inflation.
- The 15 cents per gallon dedicated to transportation needs has lost nearly half its purchasing power to inflation since 1991.
- Decreases in consumer demand due to more fuel-efficient vehicles equate to less revenue.
- Texas is a “donor state” at the federal level, which means that it gets less in federal funding than it pays in federal gas taxes.
- Robust regional population growth brings greater demand on our roadways, worsening congestion.
- Gas tax revenues collected by the state do not always return to the most congested regions. That is why regional mobility authorities use local dollars to meet local needs.
We don’t need toll roads; funds from Propositions 1 and 7 can be used to pay for transportation improvements.
- The combined funds from Propositions 1 and 7 that have been allocated to the Central Texas region total only $1.3 billion over the next ten years.
- The proposed I-35 improvements alone are estimated to cost $4.3 billion.
- These funds are a great tool in the transportation funding toolbox, but do not cover all of our transportation and infrastructure needs.
- Tolls/user fees offer an alternative funding source to ensure these important transportation improvements get implemented.
“Free” or existing roads will be converted to toll roads.
- Texas state law prohibits adding tolls to existing, taxpayer-funded roadways.
- While many toll projects are to be constructed in existing highway corridors, the amount of existing capacity (i.e., non-tolled lanes) will be preserved and is often enhanced.
Tolls can be removed once the cost of the projects are paid off.
- Roads are never really paid off. Use of roadways degrades them, and highways need routine maintenance, upgrading and eventual replacement.
- A continuous funding stream is needed to maintain the road, and this can only be generated through taxes or tolls.
- As regional metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) add even more projects to their Transportation Improvement Plans, financing must come from either taxes or tolls.
The public is opposed to toll roads.
- There are no “free” roads; there are only tax supported roads and toll roads. Raising new revenue is never popular, whether it is increased taxes or tolls charged to use a facility.
- Polls consistently show that motorists prefer project-specific tolls over general taxes and support toll roads to improve driver options.
- In one poll, 84% of Americans said tolls should be considered as an additional source of transportation revenue on a project-by-project basis.
- Toll road usage is a voluntary, individual decision which differentiates it from a tax. Taxes are mandatory and paid by all residents, while tolls are a user fee that drivers choose to pay in order to drive on tolled lanes.
The public is tired of tolling authorities forcing toll projects on the region.
- Regional mobility authorities do not determine which roads to build, nor do they decide which projects are tolled.
- Tolling authorities execute regional plans that have been developed by MPOs, which includes forecasts for traffic growth 20-30 years into the future to ensure ample capacity to minimize congestion in the non-tolled general purpose lanes. No entity can build roads that are not a part of the regional plan.
- Based on what financing is available, no road can be tolled without it being in the regional plan as a tolled road.
- The Mobility Authority’s open projects, 183A Toll, 290 Toll, MoPac Express Lane and the 71 Toll Lane continually exceed traffic and revenue projections, showing just how strong the need is for alternate routes.
There is no oversight of toll authorities.
- Tolling authorities are subject to extensive local, state and federal reporting and auditing requirements to ensure accountability.
- The Texas A&M Transportation Institute has cited the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority as a standard for transparency and accountability and encourages other RMAs to follow its lead.
Instead of building tolled express lanes, we should expand our roadway with additional non-tolled general-purpose lanes.
- Additional non-tolled general-purpose lanes in areas where population growth has outpaced demand does not solve congestion problems as they don’t effectively manage traffic.
- The primary goal of express lanes is to keep the express lane traffic free-flowing. This is done through variable toll pricing, which either encourages or discourages use by increasing the toll when traffic is heavy, and decreasing it when traffic is light.
- Express lanes incentivize the use of public transit, which has toll-free access to express lanes.
Simply put, federal and state transportation funding is in very short supply and the level of taxpayer dollars appropriated by our legislature cannot keep pace with demand. Toll roads provide a viable funding option to build roads now rather than using the traditional gas tax-funded, pay-as-you go approach.
We know the general consensus is that paying tolls is something you’d rather not have to do. But we also know that sitting in traffic really puts a damper on your quality of life. We live amidst some of the most breathtakingly beautiful green spaces, in one of the most dynamic local economies in the nation. The amenities and entertainment options are endless, attracting new residents daily. But worsening traffic congestion continues to impact our ability to enjoy all that our region has to offer. The good news is that we are in the process of implementing meaningful mobility solutions to help get you to your destination faster.
Tolls also enable more expedient financing of construction costs, allowing for much faster construction than under the traditional, taxpayer-funded pay-as-you-go model. So we don’t have to wait decades to build the roads we needed yesterday. While some would argue otherwise, tolling is not a tax. It’s a user fee collected in exchange for a service. If you don’t use the toll road, you don’t have to pay for it, and pursuant to state law, we never convert a free lane into a tolled lane. We strive to preserve and upgrade the adjacent non-tolled lanes as part of any tolled expressway project, improving the user experience for all drivers. Even bicyclists and pedestrians benefit from our multimodal enhancements. The fact is that there are no free roads. There are only toll roads and tax-supported roads. The main difference is that you only pay for a toll road when you choose to drive on it, while all taxpayers contribute to tax-supported roadways, even the ones they never use.
Keeping Revenue Local
Tolls also allow us to reinvest in our region. When a project is complete, the toll revenue collected stays local, covering routine maintenance of the new facility, as well as future infrastructure expansion. Any public funding we do receive for a toll project, such as grants or government loans, helps pay for the non-tolled elements which include expanded and upgraded non-tolled lanes, bicycle and pedestrian accommodations and trailheads.
The Toll Payment Process is as Effortless as the Trip
We’ve embraced technology to make the toll payment process more convenient for our customers. We use all-electronic tolling, meaning tolls are collected without drivers having to stop, slow down or stay in a given lane. And we know that with multiple toll agencies issuing bills in Central Texas (TxDOT owns and operates SH 45, SH 130 and Loop 1), paying tolls can be confusing. In response to user feedback, we recently revamped our toll bills and redesigned our website, and are constantly looking for new ways to improve the user experience. Click here for more information about paying your tolls.
Who Decides Which Roads are Tolled?
We often encounter the question of who decides which roads are tolled, and which ones are non-tolled. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) is responsible for developing both short- and long-range transportation plans for our region. These plans identify priority projects, and determine funding plans based on available financing. Only when the Mobility Authority is asked by CAMPO to build a toll project do we take it on. No entity can build roads that are not a part of the regional plan. And before any dirt is turned or a single blade of grass is disturbed, we conduct robust environmental studies to evaluate the effects of a potential project on the human and natural environment. We know that communities make projects better. As such, we proactively seek out feedback in order to learn the needs and expectations of the public before breaking ground. Our exhaustive research is conducted in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, which requires meaningful public involvement in transportation planning and ensures that our natural resources are balanced with new infrastructure development.
Until the legislature allocates sufficient public funding for all of our infrastructure needs, tolls are helping to meet the growing mobility demands of the traveling public.