AUSTIN — Lawmakers are taking a hard look at toll roads across Texas, including the idea of ending tolls altogether.
Consistently ranked among the worst in the nation, Austin traffic is the result of a simple equation: Too many people on too few roads. Part of the problem is that like every boom town, the population in the greater Austin area is increasing faster than its budget.
So what does a city do when it needs more roads than it has money?
It's become common to opt for a toll road built by a private company that puts up most of the money and takes on most of the risk. So are the toll roads accomplishing their purpose? Or — at the end the end of the day — are drivers just paying more money for the same lousy traffic?
It's among several questions state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) hopes to answer as chair of the Texas House Committee on Transportation.
"Are we proposing a toll road because we're generating revenues? Are we proposing a toll road because it helps with congestion? Those questions haven't been asked at the same time before," Pickett told KVUE Wednesday. "I would like to see us actually remove some, especially if they make no sense monetarily, if they make no sense in safety and congestion. I can prove that today, right now, with some of them."
- RELATED: What happened to the end of tolls?
Lawmakers in 2015 ordered the Texas Department of Transportation to figure out how much it would cost to pay them off and end the tolls. According to that report, which was handed over to the committee Wednesday, current toll roads owned by the state owe around $21 billion and would cost roughly $30 billion to pay off today. Public-private partnerships in which TxDOT is a party would cost an additional $10 billion to pay off.
"This work continues and therefore the early rough estimate could change in the final report to the Legislature," department spokesperson Veronica Beyer told KVUE.
State toll roads in the Austin area owe $3.2 billion, and include sections of SH 130, SH 45 North, SH 45 Southeast and Loop 1. Private toll roads run by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) — which include US 183A, US 183 South and segments of US 290 — owe $1.7 billion. Other private projects under construction include SH 71 Express, which owes $65 million, and the Mopac Improvement Project.
"I represent north Austin and Pflugerville. Paying $8 a day adds up," state Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) told KVUE. "In an economy that isn't helping working class families, that's a big chunk of their family budget over time."
Israel championed a project in 2015 to reduce the tolls for trucks traveling on the underutilized SH 130, in order to lure through traffic away from IH 35. The Texas Transportation Commission is expected to vote Thursday on a measure that would administratively discount truck tolls and report the impact on traffic to the legislature when it next meets in session in 2017.
Yet Israel warns the money to move away from tolls across the board must be made up elsewhere — a conversation that won't be easy. Pickett doesn't see the elimination of toll roads happening overnight.
"What I am seeing, and I'm happy to see that, is a tempering, is a slowing down, is a thinking twice," said Pickett, who credits the public for pumping the brakes.
"I don't think it benefits the toll authorities to reduce congestion. It benefits them to bring congestion so that people will get on the toll roads and pay the tolls," Rollingwood resident Wendi Hundley testified Wednesday, prompting praise from Pickett.
"I've been trying to make that point for some time, and coming from somebody who was a member of the general public, who has come up with that observation, that was probably to me the most important thing that was mentioned today," Pickett told KVUE.