Managed lanes

Ten years ago the North Texas Tollway Authority was unpopular. Not so much anymore. Now the ire of some motorists falls upon the Texas Department of Transportation and its relationship with private investors who helped build "managed lanes" where prices fluctuate and can go much higher than NTTA prices.

DRC_Dave_Lieber

Dave Lieber

A decade ago, the No. 1 villain in the life of The Watchdog was the North Texas Tollway Authority.

I received so many complaints from readers about the NTTA overbilling commuters for late toll charges — $500 in fees and penalties for an unpaid $19 toll bill, for instance — that I helped organize a revolt in the Texas Legislature, which eventually changed state law to cap the fees and penalties.

Still, the NTTA was out of control.

The worst example I found came in 2010 when a single mom was tossed in jail for 27 hours because she failed to show up in court to deal with a 5-year-old unpaid bill for $11 (plus a ridiculously high number of added fees and penalties).

She said she never received the bill. NTTA officials said at the time that its proof was that the bills mailed to her were not returned by the post office. Seemed like a shoddy way to tell if someone got a bill for something that could land them in jail.

Those days are mostly gone.

I rarely receive NTTA complaints anymore. It’s quite a stunning turnaround, and one for which this former villain deserves credit. I’m not saying NTTA is perfect. I’m only saying the situation has settled down compared with the way it was.

One recent NTTA-related complaint I received was from a man who never paid his toll bills and wanted to know if I could help him get out of it.

Sorry, pal. If I pay, you pay. I refused.

Another letter I received last week came from a widow who complained that she had to send a 30-cent check to NTTA to clear up her late husband’s account.

“I realize it was probably a computer-generated letter, but I still think it was ridiculous,” Sally McKeever of Richardson wrote me.

I see her point. But compared to the problems I heard a decade ago, this is small beans.

Compared with ‘managed lanes’

The NTTA looks especially good now compared with the rotten deal commuters face when driving on TEXpress lanes where tolls “are skyrocketing to as much as $15” for almost 6 miles of travel, according to Gordon Dickson, transportation reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Don’t blame the NTTA for that. Even though NTTA handles billing for TEXpress’ so-called “managed lanes,” the two entities are separate — and quite different.

Many people don’t understand this, so let me explain.

NTTA runs the Sam Rayburn Tollway, 360 Tollway, President George Bush Turnpike (which Bush, anyway?), Dallas North Tollway, Chisholm Trail Parkway, Addison Toll Tunnel, Lewisville Lake Toll Bridge and Mountain Creek Lake Bridge.

Other toll roads in the region are under the purview of TxDOT and known as TEXpress Lanes.

The confusion comes because NTTA does the billing for these TEXpress lanes, even though its roads are not part of the NTTA network.

The best known TEXpress lanes are found on Interstates 30, 35E and 35W; State Highways 114 and 183; Loops 12 and 820; and the DFW Connector.

NTTA charges 18 cents a mile for drivers with a TollTag, according to NTTA spokeswoman Anjelica Solano.

By comparison, TEXpress lanes punish drivers with fluctuating prices called “dynamic pricing.” Prices soar when traffic is heavy, especially during rush hour.

In fact, toll prices on TEXpress roads can change every few minutes.

As explained by Dickson, who has covered transportation for more than a decade: “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.”

On those roads, there’s a 75-cent per mile ceiling, Dickson reports, but that ceiling has increased over the years because of inflation. It can go to 90 cents a mile — or higher now if traffic is heavy. (They call 90 cents a mile a “soft cap,” which means it can jump even higher than a hard cap — another way bureaucrats use words to hide hidden taxes.)

Compare that to NTTA’s 18 cents a mile (almost double, though, for those without a TollTag who pay later by mail). Who’s looking good here?

You might remember that when this TxDOT-private partnership setup was created, it was because Texas lawmakers didn’t have the guts to put more money into roadwork despite this state’s record growth.

For some, it seemed like a good idea at the time to allow private investors, such as a Spanish company called Cintra, to invest and help pay for the roads.

But the deal struck is that once the roads are paid for, they will not become free, which is what happened on I-30 decades ago when the old Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike was paid off.

This privatization of toll roads clearly leads to higher toll charges for commuters.

I contacted TxDOT spokesman Michael Peters, who referred me to NTE Mobility Partners, which is responsible for the portion of State Highway 183 where Dickson found that the woman mentioned earlier had paid about $15 for almost 6 miles.

Robert Hinkle, spokesman for NTE, also known as North Tarrant Express, said in an email: “There is a lot of continued monitoring and analysis between us, the North Texas Council of Governments, and TxDOT on the managed lane dynamic tolling system and the periodic spikes.”

I’d be shocked if this “monitoring and analysis” led to a drop in pricing. You think the investors, with their signed agreements, will go for that? Who’s in charge here?

‘Failure by leaders’

It’s a failure by our state leaders more than a decade ago to find a way to expand area highways without bringing in private investors.

As I first reported in 2010: “Our state leaders signed a 52-year contract with Cintra, a company in Spain, to build the roads. The company can raise tolls at any time.”

Back then we were told it could cost about $2 to travel from the North East Mall in Hurst to I-35E.

Now we see a charge as high as $15 for almost 6 miles, many times more than that $2 promise.

It’s outrageous.

NTTA may still have a few problems, but they’re nothing like they were a decade ago.

The new villain is a system only partially controlled by the state, owned by foreign investors who couldn’t care less how much you pay.

Maybe it’s time we start to do what the arena sports announcers urge us to do.

Make some noise.

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