- July 9, 2014

Tolls Discussed for Austin’s Heavily Trafficked Highway 183

Two new pay-to-drive lanes may be the future for Highway 183, a main artery through Austin that’s a frequent source of frustration for area drivers.

Though not usually as deadlocked as I-35, 183 has several sections that can require an exhausting amount of time counting distance traveled in feet and inches, rather than miles per hour. Highway 183’s connection to MoPac (AKA Loop 1, because every street in Austin has between two and 30 different names) is particularly bad, but it also clogs up further south as you approach the airport.

To help address the issue, the state of Texas — namely the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation — proposed two options, according to Austin NBC affiliate station KXAN: build toll lanes, or keep sucking exhaust.

Doesn’t sound that bad, right? If you want to go fast while all the poors sit in the shabby, regular lanes, just charge up your platinum card and zoom on by unimpeded by the typical highway rabble. Except that’s not usually how these things work out.

Governor Rick Perry has been a big fan of toll roads during his 14 years in office. According to The New York Times, the state has added 25 new toll roads since 2000, some with the help of private companies that will be collecting quarters and dimes from Texas drivers for however long the contract they signed with the state remains in effect.

It sounds like a good business model, but it’s not working out for everyone. The toll company that oversees SH 130 (actually called “SH 130 Concession Company”), which features one of the nation’s highest speed limits at 80 miles per hour, is going broke.

Perhaps the lesson here is that going fast isn’t all that valuable in a state where nearly every driver already ignores the speed limits and does 80+ on the highways anyway. But adding lanes and additional routes still does help alleviate traffic jams, if people choose to take those new routes. And therein lies another problem: Many Texans are so sick of seeing new toll roads that they simply refuse to support them.

Perry’s support for Texas’s Great Toll Expansion is one of the lesser-known underlying factors behind the split in the Republican Party that ultimately led to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz defeating an establishment Republican from the right. While it may be hard to draw a straight line from toll road protests in Austin circa 2007 and Cruz defeating Lt. Governor David Dewhurst in 2012, the connection is clearly illustrated in the Texas GOP’s newest platform, which was adjusted this year to reflect a decidedly anti-toll stance. Although Perry’s approval ratings have been improving since his failed presidential bid, Public Policy Polling recently found that he’s still not nearly as popular as Cruz among Texas voters.

All of which is to say that the 183 toll lane proposal should attract a rowdy debate in Austin, which is home to a large contingency of right-wing, anti-toll activists. While some of them believe in the whole Trans-Texas Corridor Conspiracy Theory — that Perry and the Spaniards are plotting to cut the United States in half with some kind of super-mega-highway (of doom?) — they’re also a lot of reasonable folks who just think we shouldn’t be charging people extra for a service the state should be providing, because that’s kind of the state’s whole job, and why are we paying taxes if the state is letting foreign companies charge us to drive on our own roads?

Or something like that.

Photo: Flickr user Johnny Ainsworth, creative commons licensed.