The first foreign-operated toll lanes became fully operational in Dallas over the weekend. Interstate 635 known as the LBJ opened the first 3-mile stretch of the public private partnership toll project to the public on Saturday. The expensive price tag won’t hit commuters immediately, since it opened at a big discount for the first six months as drivers get used to the variable pricing. To use the 3.5-miles of phase one it will cost anywhere from 15 cents up to 95 cents depending on time of day. However, the regular toll rates will cost between 10 cents PER MILE up to 75 PER MILE in peak hours.
During the discounted period, Spain-based Cintra will review driver behavior and trouble spots and make adjustments. You may be asking: why on earth would it take six months for a trial period on a measly 3 miles of highway? Because these toll lanes are plunked into the middle of the freeway and navigating into and out of the lanes will be a tricky proposition.
Congestion tolling or variable pricing involves speed guarantees in the toll lanes. So the toll rates are dynamic and change in real time depending on how many cars are using the toll lanes and how fast those cars are driving. If the privately-operated toll lanes attract too many cars and the speed drops below 50 MPH, then Cintra jacks up the price to purposely knock drivers out of those lanes to guarantee the speed remains at least 50 MPH.
Hence the term ‘managed’ lanes is applied to this new concept. It’s the ultimate form of government control of your freedom to travel, except in this case, that power has been handed to a private corporation to do the government’s dirty work. So when that toll rate gets too high, the private operators get the angry phone calls not your public officials -- by design. It’s a way to outsource the unpleasantries involved with tax increases.
New taxes on driving
And tax increases they are. The toll rate is no longer determined by the actual cost of building the road, but on how much the government and its private partner can extort from the traveling public to escape the pain of congestion. It's runaway taxation run amok. The ‘user fee’ model is no more. Government has figured out how to make money from our public roads, and they’ve changed the laws to do it. Federal and state lawmakers put this freedom-robbing system in place without a public vote and next to no public input (outside very poorly attended public meetings where they never used the term ‘toll’ nor informed the public it would be privately operated).
So imagine drivers having to make a split second decision of whether or not to stay in the toll lanes based on the ever changing toll rates. Imagine what that looks like as drivers jump into and out of the complex toll facility. The free lanes won’t be so rosy either as they remain congested, and drivers will now have the added danger and aggravation of having to negotiate cars hopping on and off the tollway in their lanes, too.
Some parts of the country call these toll lanes in the middle of a freeway HOT lanes, since they’re High Occupancy Toll lanes, meaning high occupancy vehicles (carpools) ride free or single occupancy vehicles can access the lanes for a price. In the case of the LBJ project, carpoolers only receive a discounted toll rate, not a free ride. What a deal for the inconvenience. Not just any carpool qualifies either. Carpoolers have to pre-register with Cintra and keep a TollTag account (which costs you money, too) in order to get that discounted ride.
Considering the grand HOV experiment put in place in the 1980s, drivers already know of the safety hazards of high speed traffic in the HOV lanes interacting with low speed traffic on the main lanes when it comes time to get into and out of those higher speed center lanes. Many qualified carpoolers don’t even use the HOV lanes since they can’t determine where they can enter and exit due to poor signage and information. Single occupancy cars haven’t switched to carpooling in numbers great enough to affect congestion. So what’s the government’s answer to its failed programs? Subsidize it. They’re now selling that ‘excess’ capacity to single occupancy drivers.
Taxpayer subsidies & sweetheart deals
HOT lane projects across the nation have yet to attract enough traffic to pay for the cost of the road expansion. Indeed, the Cintra LBJ contract received half a billion in state gas taxes and $850 million in federal, taxpayer-backed TIFIA loans to subsidize the project. Cintra also received a hefty portion of low interest, tax deductible Private Activity Bonds (PABs). All told, the taxpayers brought over $2 billion to the table for a $2.7 billion privately-built and operated toll project.
On top of that, the foreign company will make taxpayers pay for HOV discounts for HOV+2 vehicles since its contract only requires discounts for HOV+3. The contract also contains a no-competition provision where the private operators receive compensation from taxpayers if competing roads are built or for any events it deems as ‘adverse’ to its guaranteed profits. So the government will be financially punished with punitive penalties if it needs to expand free routes or redirect traffic surrounding Cintra’s tollway. The private contract lasts 52 years.
Cintra also controls the North Tarrant Express toll projects opening in June of 2015 in the Fort Worth area which involves Interstate 820, SH 121, and SH 183. The taxpayers brought $1.5 billion to the table for that $2 billion privately operated toll contract. Another phase will add HOT lanes to Interstate 35W. There are lots more toll projects on tap for the DFW metroplex in the coming decade. Navigating the complex toll schemes between publicly-operated freeways and tollways and privately-operated ones will continue to make driving more difficult and very costly for North Texas drivers.