Electronic tags to work on all Texas toll roads
Let's Play Tag
About 2 million Texans who use toll roads don't pay tolls - not while they are driving, anyway. They use electronic "tags" that register a toll road trip and pay in advance so they can pass toll booths without slowing down.
With construction of a network of toll roads in the Austin area already under way and additional projects on the drawing board for Bexar County, Sherman-Denison, Tyler and El Paso, several agencies are working to make sure tags that work on one road will work on them all.
Motorists in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who use the roads of the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) and drivers on Houston's toll roads, which are owned and operated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA), can already use their tags in both cities.
One tag for Texas
"The reality is [the Texas Transportation Commission] wants patrons on the road, whether in Dallas, Houston or a TxDOT [Texas Department of Transportation] road, and for them to get one billing statement," said Phillip Russell, director of the Texas Turnpike Authority. "Ease is one key component and Dallas and Houston have already made strides in that direction."
The electronic tags used by the NTTA and HCTRA use similar software to log cars' passage through tolling plazas. As a result, since October 2003, a Houston tag will work in Dallas, and a Dallas tag will work in Houston.
"Thank goodness for good, compatible technology," said HCTRA Director Mike Strech.
NTTA Assistant Executive Director Rick Herrington said Dallas sees more traffic from Houston than it sends to Houston, but that feedback has been positive.
"It's gone extremely well," Herrington said. "We're doing about 13,000 HCTRA patrons a week, and [HCTRA is] doing about 7,000 NTTA customers per week. Our customers have been very appreciative."
Herrington said the technology may have been the easiest part of the deal between the two groups--and added it will likely be so for any future arrangements--but that the hard part was what he called the "business rules."
"The thing we stress is no matter whose customers they are, they shouldn't have to pay more than regular drivers do in another area," he said. "For instance, if the toll is $1 in Houston, an NTTA customer shouldn't have to pay $1.10 just because [his or her tag] is from out of the area."
Herrington added that the rule should hold true for drivers in any other part of Texas as well.
Electronic payment has not completely done away with the need to keep a handy stash of change for the toll road, but tag use is increasing.
Since 1988, when the tags were introduced into the NTTA system, which collects tolls on 53 miles of toll roads, a bridge, a tunnel and parts of DFW International Airport, the tags have been installed on about 800,000 vehicles in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. NTTA has more than 35 miles of additional roadway on the drawing board.
Herrington said about 150,000 drivers used the tags in the first 10 years. That number had jumped to 800,000 by 2002.
Herrington said additional toll roads and the elimination of a $1.50 service charge for tag users helped boost participation, but the biggest reason for the increase is an extra 15 cent charge that drivers using cash must pay.
In Houston, the HCTRA has 1.2 million tags in circulation on 89 miles of toll roads. HCTRA has 331 miles of additional roadway construction planned over the next 20 years, according to Strech.
"We're looking at 200 for sure in the next 15 years and we've got 45 miles under construction right now," he said.
Down the road
Central Texas is next. The Central Texas Turnpike System, a 65-mile toll road east of Austin, with a price tag of more than $3.5 billion, is under construction by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. The road should be complete in December 2007 and will parallel the busy north-south route of Interstate 35, while avoiding downtown Austin.
In the end, Russell said the goal is to make the toll roads of Texas accessible to electronic toll customers from across the state.
"The traveling public ought to get to put up one tag and be able to go where they want to go, when they want to," he said.