Friday, July 27, 2007

Expensive Unfinished Roads

Austin now has toll roads, and they are horrible. I hate them.

I do not have a problem with the idea of paying a toll to use a road. It actually makes pretty good financial sense if it is taking you to a job and can get you there significantly quicker, well why not?

Oh yeah one other problem -I do not think the government has any business making people pay tolls who paid for the roads to begin with. In Austin the big complaint was the idea of people getting "double taxed."

Basically we are paying for the construction and maintenance of these roads with gasoline taxes, but then to use the road you have to give them additional money. What this does in effect is, it keeps most of the people off the toll roads who actually paid for them to be built.

Meanwhile we are not really being "double taxed" actually we are at the very least being "triple taxed," and very likely quadruple taxed or more. That is because the toll road builders are getting their money from multiple sources including state level funds (this is presumably from the gasoline taxes), and county level funds (these would come from sales tax's funding bonds on the county level).

Now its also possible they are getting funds county level from ad valorem and property taxes. I doubt at least the property taxes part given how highly contested school money is these days, but I know at least the money is coming from multiple places in the county budgets which likely means multiple sources of funding.

What that means for us is that we pay for these roads every time we pay that extra 3 percent of sales tax. So if you buy gas anywhere in Texas you are paying for roads that the state will not let you drive on without you forking out additional funds, meanwhile if you buy any product in travis or williamson county Texas you are helping to pay for roads that the state will not let you drive on without demanding additional funds from you.

All of this would be actually tolerable if the roads were well designed and/or well priced. They are not. You might be thinking well if I need to get somewhere I will just stay on the frontage road, that way I won't have to pay the toll I will just have to put up with all the stop lights.

To combat this problem the frontage roads of the toll roads were designed to end at fairly random places, and then immediately start again. In application that means you are driving along and you have the option of either getting on the toll road or turning down a nearby road that will take you in different direction from where you were traveling.

Last night I found myself accidentally on the frontage of a toll road -it shunted me down a neighborhood road that was in the opposite direction of the direction I had been trying to travel to begin with. Meanwhile the roads have already opened in spite of the fact that they are unfinished. So if you actually get on them you find yourself forking out a 1.50 to stay on a road that ends a mile down the road.

Austin's toll roads have intentionally confusing signs, and intentionally confusing frontage roads. One day I was driving home from my fiance's sister's house. She lives off of the same road that we do. But a section of that road has been turned into a toll road, then the toll road splits from it and goes off in a different direction.

So I am trying to get home which used to be just a straight drive down 620 from her road to mine. Not today, I attempt to go home down 620 and I get to these signs that say toll45 with a right arrow. Well I do not want to get on the toll road so I try to turn the other way thinking I will find some part of the frontage road to get on that will skirt the toll section.

That isn't what happened, turning the other way put me on the same toll road going the opposite direction of my home with no option of getting back off. The frontage actually forced you onto the toll road. Well luckily this part of the toll road wasn't charging this particular night so I didn't have to pay anything but I am trying to find an exit so I can turn around.

The next exit I come across is the mopac exit. Once again all I want to do is exit so I can loop around and come back the other direction. So I get off on the next exit. What happens? The next exit is another toll road or rather a section of a road that was extended and then tolled. The rest of mopac is not a toll road.

So does getting on mopac give me any option of exiting the toll system? No. It immediately puts me on the toll part of mopac and then brings me to a toll plaza where they demand money from me. The whole mile or so I am on this road I am looking for a way to exit or turn around but there is none.

All you can do is go to the toll plaza where an actual person is waiting this time wanting 75 cents. Immediately afterward there is an exit (surprise!). So I get off on that exit. Then I notice a sign saying parmer lane next exit. Well I live near parmer lane so I figured I should drive down the frontage to parmer and then head back to my neck of the woods.

Does this happen? Sort of. It turns out completely unbeknownst to me that the left two lanes of the frontage shunted you back onto toll road. Well I didn't know this probably on account of the fact that it was dark and there were no signs to be seen indicating such. At least not in the little stretch of frontage I was on.

So by the time I realize I am headed back to a toll station wanting my money there is once again no way to turn around. There goes another 75 cents. So finally I get to parmer and start my 20 minute drive home. Oh and by the way my fiance's sister lives all of about 10 minutes away from us. In fact it used to be about a 5 minute drive before they stuck in the toll road. Now we have to get on a narrow one-lane frontage road, and sit at a long stop light we did not used to have to sit at. Why?

Oh thats because otherwise we would have to get on the toll road and pay 75 cents to get off on the very next exit which is maybe a mile from the entrance of the toll road. In other words they converted a section of 620 into toll road. In order to use that very short section of road that would bypass the one-lane high traffic frontage (that also did not used to be that narrow) we have to pay 75 cents. Oh and by the way before it was voted to turn this into a toll road, and before the rest of the toll road was built this section of 620 had already been improved to bypass that stop light and there was no additional fee for using it.

So now instead of decreasing the time of our trip it has effectively doubled it.

As it turns out the sign that had said "toll road this way" that had originally caused the confusion failed to mention that you also had to turn that way to keep going down 620 in that direction.

So $1.50 and about 45 minutes of my life were wasted because of the intentional shittiness of the toll road signs and frontage roads. But of course they have every reason to make the roads confusing and force people to get on them who innocently turned the wrong way or missed the exit they were supposed to get off on, or perhaps who are just confused about how the frontage roads were designed and what lane they were supposed to be in.

That way they can make money off of people who get lost or confused by their signage. Meanwhile this particular toll system is designed to charge you according to how many miles you use. What does that mean in application? Well unlike traditional toll roads that charge you at your entrance to the road this one charges you at multiple points.

They have "toll plazas" placed every few miles down the road. Then they have tolls at some entrances and some exits. What this means in application is that to drive down the toll road without their little textag you have to stop and pay the toll to get on, stop and dig out change to pay the toll when you come across a toll plaza, and then stop and pay a toll when you get off. Of course approaching toll plazas, frontage roads and exits tend to disappear so that you cannot avoid having to stop at the plaza.

Part of why this is so ridiculous is because most of these toll roads aren't but about 4 to 5 miles long. In theory you are supposed to get charged something like 18 cents per mile, but the toll plaza's charge people the same amount regardless of where they got on.

I have personally been charged $1.50 to drive approximately two miles of toll road. Why? Because I got on where the frontage road ended, and the frontage road ended about a half mile before the toll plaza. Meanwhile the toll road ended about a mile beyond the plaza. So including the ramp I might have gone two miles on that road. 75 cents per mile.

Also there are little segments of the toll road that only allow people to use them who have a textag. The txtag though free right now is going to start carrying a charge. A 9.95 activation fee or some nonsense. So to use the exclusive txtag sections of road its going to cost you ten bucks plus the toll.

With a txtag they set up an account and then charge you every time you pass through one of their toll stations. The toll stations are all designed to be incredibly inconvenient unless you have a txtag. In fact that is the point of having the exclusive areas. The exclusive areas force all the other motorists off the road, or risk getting ticketed and fined.

They take a picture of your license plate when you pass through one of the toll stations that way they can send you your fine in the mail.

So there is this pristine section of mopac expressway now that is brand new and tolled. Because of this hardly anyone uses it. At least not when compared with the rest of mopac. The rest of mopac has heavy traffic most of the time.

The rest of mopac is falling apart. Not only that, it very badly needs more lanes given how many people use it all the time. This is basically a major north/south expressway in austin. Its most congested area is not in the northeast where it has been extended and improved but the northwest segment, central and south.

There are areas of mopac, areas where it has its highest congestion that drop down to only one lane. Meanwhile most of the congested section is riddled with pot holes, filled-in cracks, and precariously narrow ramps and exits.

Unfortunately its hard to get adequate money to fix these kinds of problems because the state explicitly favors improvement projects that use tolls.

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