Friday, December 01, 2006

Highway Robbery?

(This post could be considered a "topic in progress," since I don't have the usual links to my sources here, but I wanted to get the discussion going while the topic's still fresh.)

The Highway 121 toll road starts living up to its name today, as tolls are being collected for the first time. The interesting feature about 121 is that it's 100% electronic--no tollbooths, no money changes hands anywhere. The road, which is the first toll road to be managed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) instead of one of the regional tollway authorities, can capture information from motorists in one of two ways: by reading any TollTag from anywhere in the state, or by reading the license plate number off the car and sending a paper bill a little later. (If you're in this area, you've probably heard their catchy little "Pay Your Toll While You Roll" jingle on radio.) The road's been done since September, but they used the past few months as a "trial period" to get the equipment installed and tested.

I've noted before that I'm perfectly happy with toll roads if it means that they get built now and not twenty years from now. (Sure, it would be nice if the Legislature didn't divert our gasoline taxes to other expenditures, but since they do, I'm happy to affix a TollTag to my windshield if it means avoiding 27 stoplights on my way somewhere.) But something I heard about on Ernie and Jay earlier in the week was very concerning to me: Evidently, if you drive on the tolled 121 now with out-of-state plates, you can be fined (this has something to do with the fact that Texas has no way to call up billing information on cars from other states the way it does with people here). And supposedly, TxDOT has no plans to install signs warning people about this before the tolled sections begin.

This doesn't affect me personally, of course, but it bothers me that something like this wasn't thought out very well. They've made a provision for rental cars (the rental agency is billed, and they in turn bill the customers according to when the car was being used), but not out-of-state drivers? And they're not even going to so much as warn them? I'm sorry, but that's poor planning on TxDOT's part, and it makes me wonder if having someone other than the NTTA (or its counterparts in Houston and Austin) operate the toll roads was a bad idea.

The only thing is, I can't find a link for this story anywhere, and I tuned into Ernie and Jay too late to find out their source for this story. All I know is that I can't find anything about it in the paper, KRLD's website or TxDOT's website, so I don't want to squawk too loudly until I see this idea in writing. But still, if that is exactly how this situation will be dealt with, they need to do some re-thinking, and fast.

More on this story as I collect additonal information...

School experiment gone awry....and fast, too: A California teenager took home one of those realistic baby dolls that are often given to students to help them practice being a parent. On her way home, the doll started to cry, startling the young driver so much that she swerved her car into a freeway guardrail and then back out onto the road and into a pickup truck.

And you thought you couldn't concentrate on your test: Final exams will soon be underway at most colleges, and students can only hope their experience is not like that of a group of students at the College of Charleston (S.C.), who had to put up with the sounds of a pile driver sinking columns for a new campus building next door.

They're unburritable: Chipotle recently held a contest that called for college-student filmmakers from all over the country to come up with a 30-second TV ad for the restaurant. Here's the winning entry, from down the road at SMU, and the runner-up from Nebraska, which has a bit of a mean streak. (I have no idea why the SMU one was flagged as inappropriate content; umm, maybe the girl is too pretty? Also, I really like this one from SMU, where a guy likes the smell of Chipotle burritos so much that he uses a tortilla as a dryer sheet.)


Gary P. said...

The road's been done since September, but they used the past few months as a "trial period" to get the equipment installed and tested.

The cynic in me sees the "trial period" as nothing more than a ploy to open the highway for "free" before the last gubernatorial election, but postpone charging for it until after. The ink was barely dry on the election certification papers before it was announced tolling would begin December 1.
Color me skeptical.

And it's a nice bit of totured legalistics allowing state law to be disregarded because roads that are free officially require elections through the affected cities before they can be converted to toll roads.... which didn't happen here.

I've noted before that I'm perfectly happy with toll roads if it means that they get built now and not twenty years from now.

Don't buy into this Big Lie. Highway 121 is already fully funded through existing gas tax dollars. The current scheme is nothing more than Robin Hood for Roads as your tax dollars spent here are going to fund construction of toll roads as far away as Tarrant and Ellis Counties for now. Eventually, who knows.

The Mayor of McKinney was one of the biggest cheerleaders for tolling 121 as he was promised funds for widening 75 in his city. Now TxDOT has said they have other higher priorities, and he's going to have to wait. I'd cue Nelson Muntz if Whitfield's sellout wasn't so pathetic.

What's worse though is that TxDOT is managing it for now, but the eventual plan is to auction it to the highest bidder. Foreign companies are upfronting billions of dollars to buy management rights to toll roads and jacking up the tolls under contracts lasting as long as 50 years.

Rick Perry's darling Trans-Texas Corridor is going to be managed by a Spanish company and the toll rates that have been floated are an astounding 15.2 cents a mile for passenger cars. A Dallas-to-Waco round trip would cost you $29 in tolls. Dallas-to-Austin and back: $60 in tolls. Dallas-to-San Antonio and back: $84 in tolls. The 18-wheeler rate is 48.5 cents a mile, making a one-way trip across the whole thing $216.45 in tolls. Guess who that cost is going to get passed on to? What I've read is the 121 toll rates will be indexed to inflation and adjusted annually.

And if this model does succeed, you can bet your last dollar (literally and figuratively) that there will never be another highway built in DFW that doesn't come with its own similar perpetual usage tax.


Jazzy G said...

Gary, they're already going to raise rates on 190, and the extra cash is going to fund some other road that none of us will ever use.

I'm thinking about just taking the old Park route to Plano from now on.

Gary P. said...

According to the Startlegram, non-Texans will continue to ride for free on SH121.

But the Texas Department of Transportation doesn’t yet have agreements with neighboring states to share vehicle registration information — so there’s no way to send out-of-state owners a bill.

The loophole will be closed soon, Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford said.

“We think people are honest and will pay the bill,” he said. “If not, we’ll call their Department of Transportation.”


Kev said...

Gary--thanks for the link; I didn't even think about the Startlegram (probably because I've never been a subscriber). But what I heard on Ernie and Jay was that some city or another along the 121 route was thinking of positioning cops just past where it becomes tolled, thus being able to issue tickets to out-of-state "scofflaws" in person.

As for the other stuff: I still don't see the delay of the tolling as a conspiracy to get Perry re-elected or anything like that; the equipment they're using is brand-new, so it makes sense to me that it could take a bit of time to get it up and working.

And as for whether or not the roads are actually funded already....well, let's look at what's happened so far: The George Bush, in all its various incarnations (Loop 9, SH 190, etc.), languished for years when TxDOT was going to be funding it, but once it got converted to a tollway, it got built almost immediately. And is it really that much of a stretch to imagine the Lege raiding the gas tax funds to use for their own personal pork projects? Not from where I sit.

You notice that they're only make tollways out of new projects and not toll existing highways (there may be additional toll lanes added to roads already built, like LBJ in Dallas and the TTC that you mentioned). As it says in the FAQ's on the 121 website,
Why are some portions of SH121 not tolled?
Parts of the highway that were previously open to traffic will not be converted to toll lanes, and drivers will not be charged tolls on those segments of the road.

The part of 121 that was funded by existing tax dollars was the service roads; if the mainlanes were funded that way, and the money was already there, don't you think they already would have been built?

As I said in earlier posts, we may just have to agree to disagree here. All I know is that my part of Garland has been totally transformed by the George Bush, and I have no doubt in my mind that we'd still be driving on service roads with big open fields in the middle of them if we were still depending on gas tax dollars to build the thing. Your mileage may vary.

Oh, and Gary, I knew you'd be the first one to comment on this post. ;-)

Kev said...

"You notice that they're only make tollways out of new projects and not toll existing highways"

Umm, how about they're only making tollways out of new projects and not tolling existing highways.

(Ladies and gentlemen, the Grammar Self-Police.)

Shawn said...

Note to self - avoid tollway 121.

I don't want to get fined for that. Boo.

Kev said...

Shawn: The only time that's likely to affect you is if you go from Denton to DFW Airport, but it also has free service roads that you can use.

Kev said...

And G, re your comment: the new rates on the George Bush and Dallas North Tollway won't take effect until next September, so it may not affect you by then.

Jazzy G said...

"..the new rates on the George Bush and Dallas North Tollway won't take effect until next September, so it may not affect you by then."

God I hope it doesn't affect me. I really, really, REALLY hope.