Bill pitched to hit the brakes on toll roads

Getting through the 183-A toll plaza in Cedar Park is not cheap. It cost almost a $1.50 with a TxTag and just under two dollars without one. Bypassing it is also no easy matter because free frontage lanes were not included when the expressway was built. 

That along with recent billing errors prompted state Representative Tony Dale to call for a change.

"The drivers in the area are saying they are paying too much for it, and they want free access roads, and they want their bills to be accurate,” said Rep. Dale.

Thursday morning Dale appeared before the House Transportation Committee and pitched a bill to hit the brakes on toll roads. "Some people go completely out of their way, specifically to avoid them because of the billing issues that have occurred,” Dale told the Committee.

HB361 would prevent toll operators from building new projects if they have existing roads without free alternate routes. The committee was warned the bill comes with too high of a cost.

"There's some real world examples of what a problem this could be, up in Northeast Texas there is a project, it’s a very long project, it’s in a somewhat rural-urban area, it would cost $700 million to go back in and put frontage roads on that project, in order to comply with an order like this which is an impossibility really,” said C. Brian Cassidy who advocates for several Mobility Authorities in Texas.

The idea of passing new toll limits sparked a broader discussion regarding the growing resentment against tollways. The debate has also apparently claimed a casualty.

Plans to put toll lanes down Hwy 183 N from Lakeline to MoPac are now on hold.

Rep. Dale agreed to modify his legislation so it would only apply in Williamson County. That essentially makes the Bill target only one agency, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

The head of the CTRMA, Mike Heiligenstein, said he isn’t against free lanes. "I've always said, if a taxing entity wanted to come up and build one of these roads, non-tolled, than I think that should be considered."

Heiligenstein also told FOX 7 that CTRMA didn’t build the free roads on 183-A because the extra cost of crossing a wetland, estimated to be about $100 million, may have prevented the entire 183-a project from getting investment money. The tolls from the plaza, according to Heiligenstein, are also used for other projects - like the free frontage lanes north of 1431.

"That gantry allowed the build out of those access roads where you have the Costco, the convention arena, you've got Hospitals, you've got the shopping, $500-million of new tax base for the city of Cedar Park,” said Heiligenstein.

The CTRMA also issued a written statement to FOX 7  that also addressed the 183 North project.

Mike Heiligenstein, Executive Director of Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority said, “With regard to 183N, we’re not doing anything until this all gets figured out. We've suspended activity until the department makes its call. Also, if a taxing entity wants to step up and discuss a $500M bond to cover the cost of the 183N project, we would be glad to have it be non tolled."

Representative Dale remains convinced his plan will work and points to lanes once used for toll booths as a possible toll plaza bypass. "I know we need transportation options but at the same time, we have got to be fair to people, and it just doesn’t feel fair and it doesn’t look fair,” said Dale.

House Bill 361 was left pending because it’s not part of the governor's special session call. Representative Dale says he has asked the governor to add it. If not - the committee chair said the bill will continue to be discussed leading up to the next regular session.