The open road calls to people the world over to get out and drive, to see the countryside, to go places. We enjoy the freedom of going wherever one wishes on the roads which are open to the public. The US has one of the more expansive highway systems in the world and the maintenance of all that concrete and asphalt has created several agencies at several levels to administrate it. Of course, with all those agencies—the department of transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Department of Public Transportation to name a few—comes the need to fund them. This does not include the actual construction and upkeep of the roads themselves either. Americans pay fees for driver’s licenses, license plates, vehicle registration and in some states, property tax in addition to fuel taxes in order to fund the highway system and the states get funds for the federal highway system from the Federal government which is paid for by income taxes. So since we pay over and over again for these roads, why then do we have toll roads? We pay an ever-increasing amount of money in tolls to drive along sections of road that, by definition, are no longer “open.”
The interstate system has traditionally been funded by the federal government but maintained by the counties through which the roads pass. The states and counties also tax the citizenry who use the roads to pay for this maintenance. This system worked fine for decades. Then cities began to grow and wanted more and better roads than the existing system could fund.
In Houston during the 50s, the city determined that the I-610 loop was going to quickly become insufficient for traffic management to avoid traffic jams downtown so they commissioned an outer loop called the beltway. In the 70’s, they built a section between I-45 and Hwy 59 called it the north belt and people drove on it waiting for the complete loop to be finished. The project languished for years because the city didn’t have the money to pay for the completion until, in 1982, the city passed a bond referendum to establish the toll authority. The idea being that the users of the road would pay for its construction.
Ever since its completion, the city has become so reliant on the revenue from the toll booths, that several more toll ways have been added and many more are on the drawing board. The sad part is that we continue to pay these tolls long after the construction costs have been defrayed. In fact, so many people use the Westpark toll way that HCTRA considered raising the tolls merely to discourage people from using it.
In order to maximize revenue and ease congestion, HCTRA installed EZ Tags so that drivers don’t have to slow down to pay the tolls. Money is simply charged to a credit card automatically when a driver uses the system. They do aid in traffic flow, but more to the point, HCTRA now doesn’t have to pay someone to sit in the booth and collect the money. The Westpark toll way is entirely EZ Tag and several exits off the Beltway are as well. In fact, the managed lanes of I-10 require an EZ Tag if you do not qualify for the High Occupancy Vehicle access during set hours.
If they are making so much money from the toll booths and EZ Tags, why then do we still have to pay such high fees to drive our cars or get our licenses or registrations or even our gas? It seems to me that if we continue to pay tolls to drive on these roads as well as the new batch of coming toll roads such as the Grand Parkway toll way, we should pay less for our vehicle registrations and fuel tax.
I have been driving in Houston since 1980 and I have driven all over this country and others. On a cool sunny day with the windows open or the top down, a drive along a lonely country road taking in the sights, enjoying the scenery and going new places still stirs the heart. There’s nothing like a drive in the country answering the call of the open road, but with all the tolls one must pay, it seems these days it’s calling collect.