The new toll lanes on Border Highway will open next week, and the Times is predicting confusion. If you use the new lanes, it’ll cost between 40¢ and 90¢ to travel if you have a toll tag on your windshield; twice that if you don’t — you’ll get a bill in the mail.
To get the tags, you can pay online, by mail or by phone. But the only place to pick up a tag or pay in person is at a payday lender — which “may be one of the the least-defensible ideas ever,” the Times quips. No kidding.
A quick detour: On payday lenders
While the topic of payday lending is a whole ‘nother post, it’s enough to say that Marty Schladen at the Times is doing great work shining light on the fox-in-the-henhouse that is William “Bill” White, corporate vice president of a payday lender Cash America, which was recently hit with $19 million in federal fines for exploiting poor people and service members with interest rates above 500% APR. By the way, White is also the governor-appointed chairman of the state commission in charge of regulating said payday lenders. (No conflict of interest at all, right?)
Since the state isn’t doing anything to protect the poor from being shafted by White’s company and other payday lenders, cities have had to take up the charge instead. El Paso’s city council voted to enact such an ordinance last January; but in the summer, they put it on hold for six months. (More on that next week when they take it up again.) Houston also approved restrictions on payday lenders two weeks ago.
Why is the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority — our local tolling entity — using a payday lender to handle in-person business? Because they have no staff to run a toll road right now. So they’re contracting with the North Texas Tollway Authority to handle all transactions (including online, by phone and by mail), and the NTTA has an established relationship with the payday lender chain. But you can tell CRRMA chair Scott McLaughlin is uneasy about that, so he told the Times they’re looking into adding other businesses. I hope that happens soon.
If you build it, will they come? Not likely
Fiddy’s response to whether he’ll use the new toll lanes, which cost 40 cents more than he does
Back to the toll lanes. While the Times is predicting driver confusion, I’m predicting driver aversion. Except for when they were building the toll lanes and traffic was reduced to one lane in either direction, Border Highway is just not that crowded. (See for yourself: Go to Google Maps and drag the time slider to see the typical traffic on area roads at those times. Note that, except for a couple of short yellow segments in the mornings, Border Highway is green all day — a far cry from the yellow and red mess that is I-10 in the morning and evening rush hours.)
These traffic count maps from 2011 — before they started the Border Highway construction — give the hard numbers: an average of 40,500 vehicles per day use Border Highway between the Patriot Freeway and the Zaragoza Bridge versus an average of 187,900 vehicles per day on the parallel section of I-10 between the Patriot Freeway and Loop 375 on the Eastside. That’s four-and-a-half times as many drivers on I-10. (Fun fact: The busiest road in El Paso is I-10 in front of Cielo Vista Mall with an average of 248,000 vehicles per day. I-10 by Sunland Park Mall? A little more than half that.)
Since drivers won’t have any real incentive to pay to zip past nonexistent traffic jams on Border Highway, I’m betting the toll lanes will sit largely unused. Then what? Joe Pickett told El Paso Inc. in July that, if the toll lanes don’t pay for themselves in 15 years, they’ll be converted into free lanes. “It’s the first [road] of its kind in Texas,” Pickett said.
What kind of toll revenue would it take then? The CRRMA estimates the cost of the Border Highway project at $79 million. Spread that out over 15 years and 365 days a year, and then factor in the most expensive 90¢ toll per trip, and the rough, back-of-the-napkin estimate is you’d need 16,000 cars per day to use the new toll lanes to break even. Based on the average use of the road currently, you’d need 2 out of every 5 cars traveling on Border Highway to use the toll lanes starting next week. Good luck with that.
A speed limit sign on the new State Highway 130 near Austin. Note the lonely car. (Photo by Bob Daemmrich/Texas Tribune)
Compare the Border Highway project with the underwhelming usage that is already plaguing the new toll road way east of Austin, and you’ll see why toll roads aren’t the panacea they were once thought to be. State Highway 130 is a 91-mile bypass from Georgetown to Seguin that nobody is driving on because it’s too out-of-the-way, despite an 85 mph speed limit and lots and lots of TxDOT signs encouraging people to use it (they even rebadged parts of I-10 as SH 130). As toll revenues are way below estimates, the bonds used to fund the project have been downgraded twice, now to junk status, and the whole project is in danger of default. Things are so bad that El Pasoan Ted Houghton, the chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, floated the idea of swapping the toll from the beleaguered SH 130 to notoriously clogged I-35, which goes through the heart of Austin. Too bad it’s not exactly legal. (Fun fact: SH 130 was the original designation of the road from El Paso to the Guadalupe Mountains in the late 1920s.)
Learn to love ’em
But back here, El Pasoans should probably get used to tolls; they are the way of the future. In the next three decades, according to the latest MPO transportation plan, six projects will add dozens of toll lanes all over town:
Year of Expenditure
||I-10 Express Lanes: from Transmountain Rd. to the New Mexico state line in Anthony
||I-10 Express Lanes: from Mesa St. to Transmountain Rd.
||I-10 Express Lanes: from Sunland Park Dr. to Mesa St.
||Border Highway West: from Santa Fe St. Downtown to Racetrack Rd. near Sunland Park Mall
||Loop 375 Express Lanes: from the Zaragoza Bridge to Pellicano Dr.
||Northeast Parkway: from Loop 375 near Railroad Dr. to I-10 near Vinton via N.M. Highway 404
In other words, the Border Highway toll lanes are just the beginning. It won’t be long until there’s a toll network all the way around El Paso, and elevated toll express lanes atop I-10 on the Eastside have to be on someone’s long-term planning board, too. So you’d better just go ahead and get your toll tag. You just won’t have a reason to use it any time soon.