It’s no secret that toll roads are about as popular as Ohio State football in many parts of Texas these days.
Rural areas in particular have traditionally shunned them. But now, even large metro areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston are showing signs of “toll fatigue,” the state’s top transportation official said Monday.
That’s why Joe Weber, executive director of the Texas Transportation Department, said he expects a lot less talk about toll roads during the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 13.
“That’s a great concern — tolling fatigue. There’s no doubt in my mind it’s out there. We’re sensitive to it,” Weber said during a conference call with reporters. “We're going to listen very closely with local communities out there.”
But Weber also predicted that lawmakers will have a robust discussion about how to pay for transportation projects using other methods.
“As we do get into an area of tolling fatigue, regardless of what portion of the state it is, we should be aware there’s got to be some other sources of funding. [Tolling] is a tool in our toolkit that has been successful.”
Weber said he doesn’t expect to see a major transportation bill filed this session advocating the use of comprehensive development agreements, which allow the state to enter into contracts with private-sector partners that are allowed to keep toll proceeds. Such arrangements were authorized during previous legislative sessions to pay for roads such as the North Tarrant Express in the Fort Worth district, and for LBJ Express in Dallas.
But many projects North Texans are likely to see completed in five or so years will likely continue to have a toll component, mainly because the state’s authority to build them is already in place. Those projects include the proposed extension of Texas 360 as a toll road from Arlington to Mansfield, and the expansion of Texas 183 on the south end of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
But tolls aside, many transportation advocates believe that this may be the first time in many years when it’s acceptable to talk about other types of revenue for road projects. They point to the constitutional amendment known as Proposition 1, which Texas voters overwhelmingly passed in November.
Prop 1 will allow a certain amount of surplus coming into the state from oil and gas production to be used on nontoll projects. The amount is expected to vary each year, but in the first year the expected amount is roughly $1.74 billion.
That may sound like a fortune, but it’s actually just a portion of the revenue state Transportation Department officials say they need to keep up with the state’s job and population growth.
Even with the injection of $1.74 billion, the state will be roughly $3 billion a year short, officials said.
“I think they’ll realize they have more projects than this can deliver,” said John Barton, Transportation Department deputy executive director. He said motorists in metro areas often object to tolls but choose them as an alternative to waiting years for a project to be funded through traditional motor fuel taxes and car registrations.
Barton and Weber also said they expect a vigorous debate on a new law banning the use of mobile devices while driving.
Texas is one of six states without a ban on texting while driving, along with Arizona, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana and Oklahoma, according to Jennifer Smith, executive director of StopDistractions.org, an organization that pushes for tougher laws.
Texting while behind the wheel has become socially taboo and the subject of ad campaigns such as “Driving While Intexticated” and “Stop the Texts, Stop the Wrecks.”
About 1 in 5 crashes is caused by distracted driving, and lawmakers four years ago passed a texting ban four years ago only to see it vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.
Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, filed a bill in November that would ban texting while driving statewide. He noted that 38 Texas cities have bans and said the result is “a patchwork of local ordinances that confuses drivers.”
“The Texas Legislature has a responsibility to give our law enforcement officers the tools they need to make our roadways safer,” Craddick said in an email.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796