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Stuck Behind The Wheel: Toll Roads and Carpool Lanes Still On The Table

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Ryan E. Poppe
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This week our Texas Public Radio series “Stuck Behind The Wheel” is looking at how out growing population is affecting traffic congestion. Today we tackle the controversial issue of toll roads. San Antonio is the biggest city in Texas without toll roads or carpool lanes, but that may be about to change.

If you want to know why San Antonio has said no to tolls so far, you start by talking to Terri Hall. She began rallying citizens more than a decade ago to fight a toll project on a congested stretch of Highway 281 between Loop 1604 and the Comal County line. 

“All six lanes that you drive on today were going to be converted to toll lanes, so obviously there was a big backlash to that,” says Hall.

Her group—now called Texans for Toll-Free Highways, filed a federal lawsuit to block that project. It’s no longer slated for tolls. But Hall has watched toll roads pop up in places like Dallas and Houston in recent years. 

“To open that Pandora’s Box in San Antonio, when we’ve already seen this kind of failure of this kind of social experiment, if you will,” says Hall. “We should not be spending billions of dollars on this kid of infrastructure that doesn’t work.” 

Commuters from Austin’s suburbs have been living with toll roads for years now. Liena Garcia commutes from Leander. “I live about 45 minutes away from where I work,” Garcia says. “Without the toll, that’s about an hour.” Garcia says she’s saved time, but money is another story. She says she has spent about $80 a month on toll fees, but she’s at the TxTag customer service center in North Austin, trying to sort out the $4,000 in fees and fines she owes because bills were sent to an old address.   

“Right now, it’s costing a lot,” Garcia says. “So, I mean, we like the roads. They’ve been very helpful towards traveling for work, but if there would be little more communication of what’s going on with the customers, I think that would be great.” 

Austinite Bryan Lopez regularly drives on the State Highway 130 toll road stretching down to Seguin. “Oh yeah, all the time, just to avoid Downtown traffic,” says Lopez. “It’s better than driving through 35, I can tell you that. It’s way faster. I mean, it kills an hour or two.” 

Last year, the private company operating part of that road filed for bankruptcy—leaving taxpayers on the hook for its losses on the underutilized thoroughfare. A few months ago, Austin opened toll lanes on busy Mopac Freeway, with 'congestion tolling,' where fees vary based on traffic levels. Lopez says the project took forever to build, but the toll lanes don’t bother him otherwise.   

"They’re more of a convenience than inconvenience," says Lopez. "So, I really would recommend for San Antonio to actually expand a little bit more on the toll roads." 

Sid Martinez is director of the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which manages federal transportation funding around San Antonio.  

“I don’t think that we can escape the tolling issue forever,” says Martinez. “I do think that we’ll eventually see a toll facility here in San Antonio, probably sooner rather than later.” 

Martinez says local transportation officials are considering an $882 million toll project on 23 miles of Loop 1604 and a $1.5 billion multilevel express lane toll project on I-35. 

“It’s very difficult to amass that kind of funding from state and federal resources, when we have so many other needs,” says Martinez. “There’s another about $17 billion dollars out there that we need to build in order to meet the needs of the region for the next 25 years.” 

Highway funding comes from state and federal gas taxes, which haven’t been increased since the early 90s. Amid a public funding shortfall, Texas communities have looked to the promise of toll revenue to draw private investment and federal loans to get things built. 

“Maybe we don’t have the congestion levels like you see in Houston and Dallas, but aside from that, there’s nothing that’s different in San Antonio that would make us not have toll roads like those other cities,” says Martinez. 

After Texas voters passed two recent statewide ballot measures boosting funding for non-toll roadway projects, stretches of 281 and I-10 previously slated for tolls will add HOV, or carpool lanes instead—another first for San Antonio.  

Councilman Ron Nirenberg chaired the SA Tomorrow planning committee. He says surveys show residents are ready for HOV lanes, but not tolls. 

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” says Nirenberg. “I think we have to cross the hurdle of congestion management lanes. I think as we see HOV lanes incorporated into people’s daily commutes, we can begin to shift the discussion more to how we can grow more sustainably instead of adding tolls everywhere.” 

A Texas A&M study conducted a decade ago found that new general purpose lanes—free lanes—would have been more effective than HOV lanes in reducing traveler time and fuel costs. But carpool lanes remain the go-to congestion management tool nationwide, and they’ll be required for federal projects if San Antonio smog levels exceed limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Nirenberg says that’s likely to happen, and we can’t simply build our way out of congestion the old-fashioned way.  

“If building more roads and more lanes were the solution to all of our transportation woes, we would have paved over the Hill Country a long time ago,” Nirenberg says. 

Terri Hall with Texans for Toll-Free Highways is glad the plan for tolls on 281 was scrapped, but she’s not happy about the HOV plans either. 

“It’s still a form of a restricted lane,” says Hall. “It’s really based on an anti-liberty philosophy, where no matter who you are, if the government is allowed to pick the winners and losers of who gets access to a fast ride and who doesn’t, then that’s the fundamental problem.” 

Construction is scheduled to begin on those HOV projects in the next few years. Local transportation planners will meet this month to consider a proposal to add toll lanes to 1604 beginning in 6 years. That plan will also need to be approved by the Texas Transportation Commission.  

Drivers may complain about toll roads, but they’ll remain a part of the conversation as long as new people flood into the Alamo City but government money for new roads doesn’t.