Study: Time to rethink truckers' use, non-use of Texas toll road

By David Tanner, Land Line senior editor | Friday, August 14, 2015

Texas officials have for years tried to get more trucks off of I-35 and on to the SH 130 toll road in the Austin area. Their theory is that trucks play a significant role in the congestion problems on the interstate. A new study of truckers’ reasons for avoiding the toll road, however, reveals that trucks are just 1 percent of the through traffic in the region.

The Texas Transportation Institute, TTI, part of Texas A&M University, published their research this week on why trucks are using, or not using, the State Highway 130 toll road as an alternative to the congested free lanes of Interstate 35.

Cost would seem to be a likely factor – and it is – as a loaded commercial vehicle traveling top to bottom on SH 130 would pay about $29 in tolls. That would be the rate if the vehicle actually used the toll road the entire way.

TTI has found that the overwhelming majority of trucks on either highway have at least one stop, pickup or delivery in Austin. Just 14 percent are considered “through trucks.”

A breakdown of the numbers shows what they’re talking about, and it shows something else – that maybe it’s the cars the officials need to be incentivizing to use the toll road.

I-35 sees about 226,000 vehicles per day, and approximately 14 percent are actually headed all the way through the region en route to somewhere else. The remaining 86 percent are local, or at least making stops, entering and exiting the highways.

Local destinations result in choices by roadway users to stick with I-35.

About 40,000 vehicles are using the SH 130 each day, but even so, the large majority of traffic including trucks has at least one local stop to make or is not considered a through vehicle.

TTI researchers interviewed trucking stakeholders about their preferences and reasoning behind those preferences.

According to the TTI research, truckers did not view the 80 mph speed limit as an incentive to use the toll road. Toll discounts, applied by the Texas Department of Transportation during a pilot program, helped somewhat, putting a higher percentage of trucks on affected segments of the SH 130. But even then, truckers reported to Land Line at the time that their destinations – not always the pricing – were the bigger motivators for routing.

“Although diverting truck traffic to uncongested toll roads is positive, the literature, traffic data and interviews revealed the trucking industry is reluctant to use tolled facilities,” Tina Geiselbrecht, associate research scientist with TTI’s Transportation Policy Research Center, said in a statement that accompanied the report on Thursday, Aug. 13.

“So it may be a good idea to also think about how to get passenger vehicles to divert to SH 130 since they make up the majority vehicle volume on I-35.”

It’s not clear in the report what incentive TxDOT could use to get more cars to use the SH 130 when 86 percent of them have local destinations.

The TTI statement includes a link to the report and an easy-to-understand video that breaks down the numbers.

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