Susan Forbes could hardly believe her eyes when she saw the price posted on the electronic sign, which pointed the way to an entrance for the TEXPress toll lanes on Texas 183 in Bedford.
She was about to enter a toll road that would charge her $15 for a distance of less than six miles.
“I paid it because I had already passed the exit,” explained the resident of Fort Worth’s Meadowbrook neighborhood. She commutes each day to an internet technology job in North Dallas.
“I knew I had been paying a lot more since the TEXPress opened,” she said, “but Holy Cow!”
Some North Texas drivers are alarmed at how high the toll rates are going up on the region’s TEXPress lanes, which have been open in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for about five years now. The idea of the TEXPress lanes is to give motorists on heavily-traveled freeways a choice — stay in traffic on the main lanes toll-free, or pay extra to get on the express lanes and get around the congestion.
Toll prices can be raised as often as every five minutes, theoretically to limit the number of drivers willing to get on the TEXPress lanes.
But, as the operators of the TEXPress lanes are finding out, raising the prices on the TEXPress lanes doesn’t always have the intended effect of thinning out the traffic. In some cases, it seems the higher the toll rates go, the more motorists want to use the TEXPress lanes.
Perhaps to those motorists, the higher toll prices are a signal that gridlock ahead on the toll-free main lanes is really bad, and paying a higher toll is better than being stuck in traffic for an hour or more.
Forbes says the same stretch of Texas 183 where she paid $15 has also charged her $13.05 on a different occasion. She provided a copy of her North Texas Tollway Authority monthly bill to show the $13.05 charge.
The tollway authority operates the popular TollTag payment system, in which drivers pay tolls automatically with a sticker on their windshield. However, the tollway authority does not own the TEXPress lanes.
The tollway authority does operate its own toll road system, with roads such as Chisholm Trail Parkway in Fort Worth and the President George Bush Turnpike in Dallas. Those toll roads have much lower maximums of only 20 cents per mile, and the price doesn’t change based on traffic.
The TEXPress lanes, although they accept TollTags as a payment, are operated by a private-sector group of companies who have far greater flexibility to jack up the prices in response to traffic conditions.
“I’m on track to spend $5,000 or $6,000 this year, if I keep it up,” Forbes said in an email. “That’s compared to 2k a few years ago.”
Fort Worth-area commuters are wondering just how high the tolls can possibly go.
Michael Hustedde, an east Fort Worth resident, recently avoided getting on the TEXPress lanes on the same stretch of Texas 183 when he saw the toll price was $11.45. He was more accustomed to seeing prices in the $4 to $5 range for that stretch during rush hour.
“Traffic was its usual awful, but there wasn’t a wreck or anything to justify such a high price,” Hustedde said in an email. “Was this a computer error, or did a contract limiting the maximum rate expire?”
Hustedde provided a link to a list of frequently asked questions on the TEXPress lanes website, which indicates that the private companies managing the toll lanes, North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, should only charge up to 75 cents per mile. Using that rate, the 5.7 mile stretch of Texas 183 from the Texas 121 split in Bedford to near North East Mall in Hurst should cost no more than about $4.28 — not $15, $13.05 or $11.45.
But it turns out that the 75-cent ceiling, which was created by the North Central Texas Council of Governments years ago as a regional policy for Dallas-Fort Worth based on 2010 dollar calculations, has actually increased because of inflation adjustments and now stands at 90 cents per mile, according to one official.
And, according to the council of governments, the company operating the TEXPress lanes has authority to temporarily exceed the 90-cent limit as necessary to reduce the number of cars on the toll lanes and keep traffic moving.
In other words, the 90-cent-per-mile is only a soft cap that can be exceeded when traffic warrants it.
“The cap on tolls may be temporarily exceeded during times of deteriorating performance to ensure speeds of 50 mph or above and adequate levels of service,” Michael Morris, transportation director for the council of governments, said in an email. “The situation you describe is a result of drivers continuing to take tolled managed lanes despite the high price. We are exploring the reason for this behavior as well as the capacity of the non-tolled lanes.”
Officials from North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners say they’ll meet with counterparts from the council of governments as well as the Texas Department of Transportation during the next few weeks to discuss how the tolling technology determine its prices and how the traveling public responds.
Despite the allegations by some motorists that they are being gouged by high toll prices, North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners stands by its technology, a spokesman said.
“The dynamic tolling system for the North Texas managed lane corridors, that is designed to keep a certain level of traffic moving at a minimum of 50 mph at all times, is working as expected and according to the regionally approved policy providing drivers in North Texas a reliable alternative for their daily trips and commutes,” spokesman Robert Hinkle said in a statement. “As the managed and express lanes network expands, traffic volumes on those corridors continue to grow and driver behavior is evolving. As a result, tolls during peak travel times have periodically spiked due to high demand in the managed lanes, and have impacted a small percentage of overall drivers.”
Some drivers have learned how to avoid the TEXPress lanes during the busiest time of day.
Chris Bellomy, who as recently as late 2017 was paying $180 to $200 a month in tolls while commuting to his information technology job in Plano, says he is now paying far less.
Mainly, he spends more time working at home.
“I haven’t seen the worst of it,” he said, “because I generally avoid rush hour commutes.”