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Will drivers’ I-35 ‘love’ include TxDOT’s planned toll road push?

A TxDOT billboard located in Temple, TX.
A TxDOT billboard located in Temple, TX.
L.A. Anderson

The Texas Department of Transportation, one of the state’s most influential yet unelected and unaccountable users of public funds, is rolling out a $500,000 media campaign reminding Interstate 35 drivers to “Be Safe. Drive Smart.” While fine advice, Texas taxpayers might beware that the safest and smartest bet is understanding just what this agency has planned.

Drivers face construction on much of I-35. “The large orange signs are part of a $500,000 campaign to emphasize driver safety, cut down on accidents and give people hope for the future when the projects are completed and I-35 is a more pleasant experience,” Waco District TxDOT spokesman Ken Roberts said of 31 signs visible between Denton and San Antonio including 11 in the local district.

The Temple Daily Telegram reports other elements of the media campaign will include gas pump toppers and convenience store window clings as well as radio and TV advertising. The safety message will also be touted via rolling ads on tractor-trailer rigs, posters at rest areas along with Facebook and mobile phone ads.

“With over 60 miles of continuous work zones, we felt we needed to re-emphasize the need to be aware of the construction. More than 15,000 accidents and more than 100 deaths happen in work zones every year,” Roberts told the paper.

It’s hard to imagine I-35 drivers are unaware of the construction. Frequent traffic snarls creating significant stoppages often provide great amounts of time for observation and other reflections of what road construction brings.

One such delay recently provided opportunity to reflect on the 2013 legislative session during which TxDOT Chairman Phil Wilson warned a Senate Finance Committee of the agency being at a “crucial turning point” due to large state bond programs hitting their limits by 2015.

“The fact is, we’re running out of capacity to issue the debt — we’re maxed out — and that’s where most of our money comes from,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton told the committee.

The Texas Tribune provided this additional background on the projected shortfall:

More than a decade ago, lawmakers paved the way for an era of “innovative financing” at TxDOT in which the agency ramped up highway projects largely by issuing billions of dollars in bonds and approving more toll roads. The spending peaked in 2009, with TxDOT moving forward with more than $9 billion in highway contracts that year, according to written testimony submitted by the agency to the committee Monday. If new revenue isn’t found, TxDOT expects funding to drop to less than $3 billion in highway projects in 2016 — a level far short of meeting the needs of a state growing as fast as Texas, agency officials said.

And in addition to warnings of internal money woes, the public private partnership (P3) model which TxDOT embraced in building toll roads isn’t working so well either.

SH 130, the 86-mile toll road extending from north of Georgetown to San Antonio and allowing a bypass of Austin, has had financial woes since its opening. In addition to being the state’s first public private partnership, it also is a partnership between Spain-based Cintra and Zachry American Infrastructure. In 2013, Moody’s downgraded its bonds to junk bond status and predicted its bankruptcy by the end of this year. Such a turn, however, appears avoided at least for now as creditors are now reportedly accepting partial payments in lieu of a full restructuring.

Though its play book reflects some adjustment, the financial woes of SH 130 haven’t made TxDOT shy away from toll roads or P3s as new emphasis emerges not just on building more toll roads, but also in converting existing highways or highway lanes to tollways.

In the San Antonio area, TxDOT’s floated proposal to add 15 miles of I-35 elevated toll lanes, two on each side from Loop 410 in Bexar County to Schertz in Comal County, met immediate resistance.

Another plan to change all of Austin’s I-35 roadway to toll lanes and then convert SH 130 to a “free” highway received similar push back.

Houston already seems to have its growing share of toll roads while Dallas drivers can look ahead to a time noted by The Dallas Morning News as the “era of the toll.”

North Texas drivers wanting to minimize their traffic problems will soon have to pay the piper that state lawmakers spent decades avoiding.

Virtually every major Dallas-Fort Worth highway project includes plans for new tolls, in many cases replacing what have traditionally been free carpool lanes. By the time billions in planned construction is done, most of the area’s major corridors will either be toll roads or feature some sort of toll component.

Many of these lanes are expected to be managed toll lanes, a concept in which the lanes run next to existing free lanes and feature “dynamic pricing” meaning toll rates change based on traffic congestion.

Per the Morning News, managed toll lanes on LBJ Freeway were instituted in December. Since then, they’ve also been added on the DFW Connector near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Upcoming plans will incorporate them on I-35E through Denton County, I-30 west of downtown Dallas along with on SH 114 and SH 183.

The merits of a $500,000 public relations campaign promoting the future reception of a highway is arguable enough. A bigger point, though, is perhaps understanding just what TxDOT has planned for Texas drivers.

So while TxDOT reminds how “One day you’re going to love I-35. Until then, be careful,” let’s not forget that converted and new tollways will bring additional financial hazards – to Texas drivers and their wallets as well.