Commentary: Why toll lanes for I-35 are the wrong solution
By Bill Oakey – Special to the American-Statesman
Posted: 6:12 a.m. Saturday, December 02, 2017
What part of “no” do some public officials not understand? Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick put the kibosh on more toll lanes for several Texas Department of Transportation projects, including Interstate 35. Almost immediately, state Sen. Kirk Watson and other area politicians cried foul. They insist that state money simply isn’t available to build all the free highway lanes needed in major urban areas.
I believe that an all-or-nothing position in favor of managed toll lanes is a recipe for disaster. On I-35, here’s what would happen with four new managed toll lanes and no increase in the current number of free lanes:
• Traffic will back up far worse than it is today, with four lanes restricted by managed tolls. The population projections for the Central Texas region are huge. The demand for more car lane capacity will increase exponentially.
• Trying to pretend that the demand is not there by discouraging travel with managed toll lanes will result in a water-torture type disaster. Over time, the peak toll rates on I-35 will climb to $14 per one-way trip, as they have in Florida and elsewhere — on roads with more free lanes and fewer NAFTA trucks than I-35. Increasing peak tolls here to $14 and beyond would be absurd. Raise it to, say, $20 per trip, and you will reduce the traffic in those lanes for sure — but you’d magnify the congestion on the free lanes until it becomes unsustainable.
• Dallas and Houston have more than six to eight free lanes on their busiest highways. What makes Austin officials think we can get by with only that many on I-35? Especially with the large number of trucks for the NAFTA trade.
• The demand simply is what it is. Keep recruiting more people to come here, and the traffic congestion on I-35 will eventually become unsustainable. Enforced capacity caps with managed tolls are the wrong solution.
• We hear the argument that if you build more free lanes, they will quickly fill up. Well, duh, that’s because people need to travel. The managed toll philosophy is that people only think they need to go somewhere. Heck, let them stay home or pay through the nose for high tolls. But, what happens when all of that “unnecessary” travel gets factored out, and future demand for needed travel exceeds the road capacity? High tolls will not fix that problem.
• Rapid buses would help to a certain extent, but enough people may not be willing to give up the freedom of their cars to make a difference. Park-and-ride facilities are a great idea. But, it would take a seismic shift in Central Texas lifestyle habits to make a meaningful impact. It would be wonderful if it worked — and maybe it is possible. But who knows for sure? What if the big managed toll gamble backfires?
• Show me where we can find $15 to $20 billion for a citywide urban rail system, then we can discuss that pipe dream.
• Given the high poverty rate in Austin, how are people here supposed to pay monthly bills on a huge network of “gotcha” toll roads? Just try doing the math on peak daily toll charges for commuting 21 workdays per month. Then try it for two sets of tolls for each day. Then three! Even “middle-class” families won’t be able to afford it, as population-driven demand continually forces up the managed toll rates.
• Is everybody ready for years of construction nightmares, only to end up with the same number of free lanes on I-35 that we had 30 years ago?
Abbott and Patrick made the right call on this one. So, where is the state going to get the money to pay for all those “free” traffic lanes? How about a few business taxes to take the load off residential property taxpayers? How about funding education at the state level to reduce property taxes? If that sounds like another pipe dream, we may all get to ponder it together — while we sit stuck in traffic for the rest of our lives.
Oakey is a retired accountant and writes the blog, AustinAffordability.com