Even tax-averse Texans tolerate tolls




Last week I dropped into a meeting of Toll Haters United Must Protest! (THUMP) and found the pitchfork pounding even more robust than usual. It seems the local THUMPers had gotten themselves all fizzed up about their group trip to Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas. They had learned from a Dallas Morning News story that — whether they’re fans of the Steelers or the Packers — they’ll all probably get socked with some roadway tolls when they check in their rental cars after today’s big showdown.

Uh-oh. The Dallas area has more than 80 miles of toll roads and — despite the THUMPers’ best planning — the visitors likely will drive in front of a tollway camera or two. Of course, nothing good can come from that. Tolls in and around Dallas generally run from 22 cents to about $1.40 for drivers who have TollTags and about 50 percent more for those who do not. The Morning News reported: “Driving a rental vehicle on the toll roads can get costly, both because the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) charges its highest rates for such customers and because (rental) car companies can tack on ‘convenience’ fees that in some cases far outstrip the cost of the tolls.”

Oh, no. This long-awaited adventure — intended to be the THUMPers’ escape from all the toll threats of the Columbia River Crossing — quickly morphed into a journey to Toll Hell.

In the Morning News story, Clayton Howe of the NTTA was quoted: “We’re hearing from our customers, and they are seeing bills (from the car rental companies) for up to $25 per toll.”

Some rental car customers can pay an optional toll charge at the time of the rental, or they can wait until check-in and get shocked by the final bill.

Bad news for toll haters

Even more terrifying for our local THUMPers, several advantages to tolling have emerged in Texas, and this good news might filter back to the Vancouver-Portland area. Among those benefits:

The NTTA counts about 1.4 million toll transactions per day on average, and about 13,000 are recorded by rental cars. Here’s what’s so great about that, for Texans, at least: They’ve suckered a bunch of out-of-towners into paying some of the “local contribution” for new roadways. What an ingenious rip-off of the unsuspecting tourists!

Don’t let this get around, but Texans seem to have found a pretty smart way to pay for new and bigger freeways. In the past 25 years, population has grown 57 percent in Texas but road capacity increased only 8 percent. With most of the gas tax (38 cents per gallon) going to just the upkeep of current roads, tolling has become more acceptable, even for tax-averse Texans.

THUMPers would shudder at the mention of one particular benefit of tolls. According to http://www.texastollways.com, tolls “relieve traffic congestion faster because funds are borrowed up-front, instead of waiting for gas tax dollars.” This means toll roads “can be built in one-fifth the time it takes for road construction funded with gas taxes.”

The news gets worse for the toll haters: “… giving drivers new time-saving options for bypassing congestion. Less time sitting in traffic means a faster ride home … spending less time idling on congested roadways reduces vehicle emissions and improves the quality of the air. … Tolls also have the advantage of charging only those drivers who use the road. Drivers who prefer not to pay a toll will always have a nontolled alternative. Texans can decide which road suits their needs best.”

Worse yet, the toll monster is growing. Texas has 17 toll roads in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Austin areas, and six more are planned. Just in the seven-county vicinity of today’s Super Bowl XLV, more than 100 miles of tolled roadways are under construction or in the planning stages.

Sadly for our THUMPers, a magical trip to the world’s greatest football game has turned into a nightmare.

One last observation about the local contribution to paying for a new Interstate 5 bridge: About two-thirds of the traffic on the bridge is local, but only about one-third of the cost is expected to come from the local contribution.

Sounds like a heck of a deal to me.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.