When the first toll road was built in Texas, it was done so with the promise that as soon as the road was paid for it would become a free highway.
The Dallas/Fort Worth Turnpike, now Interstate 30 between the two cities, started operating in 1957 and was so successful that it paid off the $57 million in bonds 10 years early.
Despite the wishes of the Texas Turnpike Authority to keep collecting tolls as a way to maintain the tollway and possibly build new ones, the public’s voice was heard and the tollbooths came down in 1977.
That by no means marked an end to toll roads in the Lone Star State. Over the past 25 years, Texas has outpaced practically every other state in building tollways. Billions have been spent on them, and now there are about two dozen in the state totaling more than 500 miles.
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Toll lanes, like the ones just completed on the North Tarrant Express (the $2.5 billion makeover of Loop 820 and Texas 121/183), are being added to existing highways.
For years some local and state officials have regarded privately built toll roads as an acceptable alternative to the decreasing state and federal funding needed to construct “free” highways.
More toll roads are on the drawing board, but some members of the public and political leaders are raising objections to the pay-as-you-drive system of transportation.
Last week, in reaction to an outcry from residents and municipalities along the route, the North Central Texas Council of Governments withdrew the Northeast Gateway, a proposed toll road between Rowlett and Greenville, from its long-term transportation plan.
That doesn’t mean that the highway won’t be built, but the council’s action has to be viewed as an obstacle to construction.
Several candidates for public office, including some who are likely to win election in November, are on record opposing construction of more toll lanes.
In reference to the Northeast Gateway, residents feared that such an expressway would be a detriment to their rural lifestyle, and they objected because the private company building the road would have eminent domain power, The Dallas Morning News reported.
With the North Tarrant Express, traveling could get expensive. Toll rates will be based on the amount of traffic on the 13-mile stretch. The highest rate, 75 cents a mile, will be charged during peak hours.
Star-Telegram transportation writer Gordon Dickson said the contractor for that road will control the tolls for 52 years.
I agree that it is time to put the brakes on further turnpike construction.
I supported building the recently opened $825 million Chisholm Trail Parkway, the 28-mile toll road between Fort Worth and Cleburne. Area residents have waited about 30 years for that connection.
But Texas must find other ways to build public highways without tolls, which doesn’t mean the public won’t be paying for them.
In addition, the state must make more progress in funding other transportation such as mass transit. We won’t be able to construct enough expressways to accommodate rapid growth in a state that is still in love with the automobile.
Proposition 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot will address part of the problem. If passed, it will allocate a portion of the state’s oil and gas tax revenue (about $1.7 billion in the first year and less afterward) to the highway fund.
But it’s estimated that approximately $5 billion a year more will be needed just to build and maintain highways to keep congestion at the current level.
That means it’s also time to consider raising the federal gasoline tax (18.4 cents per gallon) and the state motor fuels tax (20 cents a gallon).
After all, whether it means tolls or taxes, roads will never be free.