No-cash booths may hike rev­enue

Wear

Austin American-Statesman - - COMMUNITY NEWS - B Con­tact Ben Wear at: bwear@states­man.com; 445-3698. Con­tact Ni­cole Vil­lal­pando at 912-5900.

helped, but only a lit­tle. That road be­tween In­ter­state 35 near Buda and Texas 130 at Mus­tang Ridge, which was built with tax money and has no debt, brought in only about $4.2 mil­lion in the 2012 fis­cal year.

TxDOT this fall also re­fi­nanced much of the $2.2 bil­lion in debt it in­curred in 2002 to build the roads, de­creas­ing its an­nual debt ser­vice on the sys­tem by amounts that vary from $5 mil­lion to $20 mil­lion over the years.

But two other sig­nif­i­cant changes take place Jan. 1, and the pro­jec­tions re­flect that. The Texas Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion de­cided to in­crease tolls on the north­ern 49 miles of Texas 130 by 25 per­cent, and on Texas 45 North and Loop 1 by 50 per­cent, rate hikes that are both larger and two years ear­lier than re­flected in ear­lier pro­jec­tions. Be­yond that, the com­mis­sion also de­cided that the rates will be in­creased an­nu­ally from now on us­ing a for­mula tied to the con­sumer price in­dex.

At the same time, the agency will stop al­low­ing drivers to pay with cash at toll booths on those three roads (Texas 45 South­east is “all-elec­tronic” al­ready). Go­ing cash­less will not only save money (an es­ti­mated $5 mil­lion a year, the agency said last week), but could also in­crease toll rev­enue. About 8 per­cent of the sys­tem’s users were still paying with cash as of Au­gust, while about 20 per­cent were us­ing the “pay-by-mail” op­tion. The rest have elec­tronic toll tags on their wind­shields and pay that way.

Cash users have been paying tolls at a rate 10 per­cent higher than toll tag folks, while the payby-mail rate is 33 per­cent higher than the toll tag rate.

So, in the­ory, if all of those cash pay­ers kept us­ing the road and now were billed in the mail, rev­enue would go up. Sim­i­larly, if us­age of the road re­mains un­changed, the higher toll rates will pro­duce sig­nif­i­cantly more rev­enue.

Plus, the south­ern 41 miles of Texas 130 opened in Oc­to­ber, mak­ing it a high-speed alternative to I-35 all the way to Seguin. Us­age of that new sec­tion is slight so far. But that is likely to change over time and, although the rev­enue from that new sec­tion goes to a pri­vate com­pany rather than TxDOT, many of those drivers will end up us­ing the TxDOT sec­tion of Texas 130 as well.

In the short run, of course, the sig­nif­i­cantly higher toll rates might drive some peo­ple away. Or maybe not. Peo­ple are get­ting used to toll­ways around here and they might be price-proof to some de­gree. TxDOT said last week it ex­pects traf­fic on the roads to re­turn to this year’s level in two years.

Us­age of Texas 130,

Cir­cuit of the Amer­i­cas ex­pected to in­crease al­ready grow­ing us­age of toll­ways.

Texas 45 North and Loop 1, taken as a group, has in­creased by 37 per­cent since 2009. With Cir­cuit of the Amer­i­cas draw­ing peo­ple to the toll­ways, and more devel­op­ment in the Texas 130 cor­ri­dor in the years to come, the num­bers will surely in­crease.

And even the higher toll rates will still be much lower than what tens of thou­sands of peo­ple in Cedar Park and Le­an­der are paying each day on the 183-A toll­way, a road built and run by the Cen­tral Texas Re­gional Mo­bil­ity Author­ity. That road has been prof­itable al­most from the point it opened in 2007.

TxDOT’s pro­jec­tions show sys­tem rev­enue go­ing up from al­most $97 mil­lion in fis­cal 2012 to about $114 mil­lion this fis­cal year, about an 18 per­cent jump.

So, higher rev­enue, lower costs and, if the pro­jec­tions are right, a toll­way sys­tem kind of prof­itable by 2014, and truly in the black by the end of this decade.

It’s not easy to root for a toll road’s bal­ance sheet, so it’s un­der­stand­able if some of you hold the con­fetti. But a prof­itable toll­way is bet­ter than the alternative.

This will be the Al Zuway­dees’ first Christ­mas in the United States, and while they are Mus­lim, they are get­ting in the spirit of an Amer­i­can Christ­mas. The Ev­er­green Farms Christ­mas tree is dec­o­rated in their apart­ment, and Austin As­set Man­age­ment Co. em­ploy­ees are pro­vid­ing a Christ­mas din­ner for them and col­lect­ing ad­di­tional do­na­tions.

An Elks lodge has also adopted the fam­ily and wants to help them find bet­ter jobs.

Many of the ma­te­rial items on their wish lists have been taken care of. Al Zuwaydee needs tuition for com­puter tech train­ing. Khud­hair wants to get her child care train­ing cer­tifi­cate and needs help paying for tuition.

To find out more about the Al Zuway­dees or to help with tuition or gen­eral liv­ing ex­penses, con­tact In­ter­faith Ac­tion of Cen­tral Texas, 386-9145 or www.in­ter­faith­texas.org.

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