An effort in the Texas Legislature to provide truckers traveling through central Texas another enticement to avoid driving on Interstate 35 has taken the first step toward becoming reality.
Transportation officials are looking to ease congestion on I-35 through the Austin area by reducing truck tolls along a 49-mile stretch of state Highway 130. The Texas Department of Transportation says that 23 percent of all I-35 traffic is large trucks.
Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said during a recent committee hearing on the bill there is only one way to get truck drivers to make the switch.
“The only way to get more trucks off of I-35 and onto SH 130 is to incentive them to do so, and we know the discount works,” Israel said.
The 90-mile highway connects the state capital with San Antonio to the south. It is split into six segments. Segments 1 through 4 link Georgetown to south Austin and are run by the state Department of Transportation. Segments 5 and 6 are closest to San Antonio and are run by a private group.
The House Transportation Committee voted 8-4 to advance a bill to reduce the expense for truckers to travel along segments 1 through 4. Specifically, vehicles with three or more axles would get a discounted rate to use the stretch of roadway.
The Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT would be responsible for developing a program to discount or adjust toll rates. It is estimated the toll reduction would cost the state $18.7 million annually starting in September 2015.
Truck drivers have received cost breaks in the past to access the private portion of the toll road.
Most recently in 2013, an 8-month rebate program permitted large trucks to access segments 5 and 6 for the same price as personal vehicles. TxDOT reported a nearly 50 percent increase in truck traffic during that time along the 41-mile stretch but the program was cut short because funds dried up.
An ongoing enticement for truckers and other drivers to use the privately run stretch of toll road is an 85 mph speed limit – the fastest in the nation.
Israel said she believes the percentage of trucks to take advantage of discounted tolls along SH 130 this time around “will be even better” than before. However, she realizes the discount program would not resolve the area’s congestion issue.
“(The program) is not a silver bullet. This is simply one tool to help us.”
The bill, HB594, awaits further discussion in the House. If approved there, it would move to the Senate for consideration before it could advance to the governor’s desk.
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