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Texas DOT Raring to Build Money-Losing Toll Lanes

12:02 PM EDT on March 19, 2015

Managed toll lanes can be big money losers. Photo: Wikipedia
Expanding highways by adding tolled lanes can still be a big money loser. Photo: Wikipedia
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States seem to love expanding highways by adding tolled lanes, even when the money doesn't add up. The 495 Express Lanes in DC's Virginia suburbs lost $51 million last year, forcing investors to restructure $430 million in debt. Similarly, Maryland taxpayers are likely to be on the hook for the state's new I-95 lanes, which are generating barely $5 million a year after costing $275 million. Toll lanes in Atlanta and Houston are also not hitting their financial targets.

Brandon Formby at the Dallas Morning News' Transportation Blog reports on a highway expansion in Dallas that seems to be heading in the same direction. As a toll road, it won't make money, but that isn't giving state officials much pause:

In a not-so-surprising move, the North Texas Tollway Authority board this morning passed on building the Southern Gateway, the name given to a planned rehab of Interstate 35E and U.S. Route 67 that will also add managed toll lanes to both roads.

But don’t expect that to halt the project. This is the sixth consecutive time the region’s tolling entity, which has dibs on any North Texas tolling project, has turned down a managed toll lane project. The Texas Department of transportation plans to move ahead with the work.

NTTA assistant executive director of infrastructure Elizabeth Mow told board members that the project wasn’t financially feasible for the toll authority because the expected toll revenues wouldn’t justify debt needed to rebuild and maintain free main lanes and frontage roads.

TxDOT could have an easier time financing the project because it already has $470 million in state highway funds on hand to build the first phase – a lump sum that NTTA wouldn’t have received if it were to take on the project. TxDOT plans to put that amount toward the construction of two reversible managed toll lanes and rebuilt main lanes from 67 to the Horseshoe, where 35E meets Interstate 30.

If people aren't willing to pay to use these lanes, are they worth building in the first place? That's probably a question for more thoughtful public agencies than TxDOT.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Where the Sidewalk Starts summarizes the newest report on pedestrian safety from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Urbanist reports that "Brenda," the Seattle tunnel-boring machine that's carving a path for light rail (not a highway -- that's "Bertha"), is making good progress. And The City Fix discusses what kind of urban conditions help make bus rapid transit successful.

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