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Texas Tolling Far From Dead

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(Editor’s note:  transportation ideas from other states can be a help to Virginia as we try to figure out how to develop a system to lessen congestion and enhance economic growth.  What is going on in Texas is interesting and instructive.)
Despite a 2017 legislative prohibition on Texas DOT putting any tax money into toll road or express toll lane (ETL) projects, such projects continue to make headway in the Lone Star state. Some of this is due to projects authorized before the anti-toll legislation. Others are being launched by toll agencies and regional mobility authorities (RMAs) that abstain from using any TxDOT money. And in several other cases (so far), state officials have been willing to interpret the law to permit certain strongly supported projects to proceed.
Here is a sampling of toll projects approved or under way as of summer 2018:

  • The Hidalgo County RMA will develop the Hidalgo County Loop as a toll road, and construction is proceeding on the portion called the 365 Toll Road.
  • Harris County Toll Road Authority (Houston) is developing a reversible ETL for the rebuilt US 290 and will extend the Katy ETLs to Fort Bend County.
  • The Montgomery County Toll Road Authority is selling toll revenue bonds to extend the SH 249 toll road into that county.
  • The Central Texas RMA has received state permission for the SH 130/US 290 flyover project, with TxDOT contributing $41 million in toll revenue from its toll roads in the Austin metro area.
  • Construction begins this fall on the final segments (52 miles) of the tolled Grand Parkway (SH 99) outer beltway in Houston.
  • In Dallas/Ft. Worth, construction is nearly completed on the $847 million Midtown Express, which includes ETLs in both directions.
  • In Austin, the new SH 360 toll road opened in May, and the $743 million US 183 toll road project is now 50 percent completed.

Compromises were reached in recent month enabling two important projects, strongly desired by the public and local officials, to go forward. The largest of these is the $1.8 billion LBJ East project in Dallas. The agreement with the state will allow the reconstruction and widening of the LBJ, but instead of ending up with two ETLs each way, there will only be a reconstructed version of the existing one ETL each way (though the overall widening may permit a second ETL each way if the anti-toll legislation is repealed or modified by a future legislature). And the much-needed widening of a very congested stretch of the SH 130 toll road in Austin was approved in late April, on condition that only toll dollars will be used.
Other projects with strong local support are still seeking a way forward. Austin’s CTRMA wants to extend its SH 183A toll road six miles northward and is moving forward with the environmental review in hopes of getting TxDOT approval to connect to the state system. In Cameron County, the local RMA is trying to figure out how to finance a $500 million project for a new causeway to South Padre Island, planned as a toll road. And negotiations are under way in Fort Worth to get the OK for segment 3C of the North Tarrant Express, which will add six miles of I-35W to this successful P3 project, hopefully as an extension of the existing P3 concession agreement.
Finally, the Austin business community is working hard to build support for the planned $8 billion project to expand congested I-35 through downtown, which is planned largely as express toll lanes. Attorney General Ken Paxton has offered a legal opinion that TxDOT should be able to account separately for tax money and toll money, which could offer a way around the apparent ban on tolled projects involving TxDOT. Based in part on Paxton’s opinion, State Sen. Kirk Watson has called on Gov. Abbott to allow such projects to proceed. “It is my hope that he’ll green-light Central Texas projects, such as the US 183 express lanes and completion of the I-35 Capitol Express,” Watson told the Austin American Statesman in May.
Fundamentally, what is going on in Texas is a state law enacted by opponents of tolling, ETLs, and P3 concessions that is preventing the implementation of projects with strong local support, not merely in Austin, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and Houston but also in smaller jurisdictions such as Cameron, Hidalgo, and Montgomery Counties. It’s bizarre to see self-styled populist legislators thwarting the will of commuters, businesses, and officials who are trying hard to cope with Texas’s unrelenting growth, using proven tools.
(This article first ran in the August issue of Surface Transportation Innovations.)
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