🛣️ 10 toll roads, 13 years: Why Austin has so many
- 6 min read

🛣️ 10 toll roads, 13 years: Why Austin has so many

Plus, highlights from Austin Mayor Kirk Watson and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi's SXSW talk.


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☀️ Hey, Austin.

Who else is still struggling with the hour we lost this weekend? ✋ Mornings are rouuuugh on our end.

So is driving on Austin's toll roads at times. Today, we break down why the city has so many.

Also, PSA: We'll be at SXSW all week! Below, we highlight what went down during a chat between Austin Mayor Kirk Watson and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. Then, peep a new bougie SoCo addition.

Lean funds + über growth = toll mania

Gripe (verb): To complain with grumbling, per Merriam-Webster.

Used in a sentence: We Austinites love to gripe about the 10 toll roads we have to use (and pay for) just to get across town.

Force us onto one and you’ll hear us gripe ‘til the cows come home.

So how did we get here? 

When folks started pouring into Austin and its suburbs in the early 2000s, city officials realized that residents needed an easier way to crisscross the region.

Here’s why they settled on tolls.

The gas tax & growth

Texas has had a “gas tax” since 1923. Today, that means whenever you fill up your tank at the pump, 20 cents for each gallon that you buy goes to the state to pay for road projects.

But the gas tax doesn’t get adjusted for inflation (the last increase was in 1991), and raw materials and labor have become more expensive.

Translation: Less money for road projects during a time when more people are moving here and need to get around. #cool

All said and done, Texas resorted to tolls. And the griping began.

Sidenote: Also impacting the gas tax dollars: EV cars, growing in popularity, obviously don’t use gas. To make up for the loss, last year Texas imposed a one-time purchase fee and ongoing annual fee for EVs (Much anger ensued). 

All about the tolls

Austin Daily

In some cases, Texas merely added toll lanes to existing highways, giving drivers the option of avoiding traffic for a few extra bucks. In others, like parts of 130, a new toll road was built from scratch. 

Two entities operate the region’s 10 tolls: The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA). The former operates your handy-dandy TxTag, but you can use it on CTRMA-run tolls, too. Worth noting, tolls cost more if you pay by mail.

These agencies borrow money — from the bond market, for example — then use toll fees from drivers to pay it off.

Last year, KXAN crunched the numbers and found that, combined, they raked in a whopping $381 million in toll fees in 2022 from the Austin area.

Breaking down the common gripes

A few things get Austin drivers really riled up about tolls.

  • The fees themselves, obvi. 
  • The fact that some tolls’ fees vary. For example, drivers pay more to use MoPac Express Lanes during peak hours, like 5:30 p.m.
  • The late fees. CTRMA charges $25 if you pay one month late, even if your toll is, say, $3.81. Late fees ramp up to $40 for 60 days. And then, eventually, legal action.
  • TxDOT’s opaque digital platform and mailing service, a rabbit hole we won’t go down today (KXAN’s explainer is great, if you’re interested).

In a nutshell, we’re living in an expensive city and spending more money just to get around that could be spent on beer and tacos.

Who wouldn’t be peeved?

— Katie Canales, Editor

Temperature: 77 degrees | Sun: Playing peekaboo | What to Expect: Patchy morning fog

It’s a “chamber of commerce” day across beautiful Austin. This will surely have SXSW festivalgoers plotting their move to the City of the Violet Crown. We’ll just have to remind them that we typically see 31 days of triple-digit heat a year...

Mary’s Tip: It’s Spring Break! Take the kiddos to do something outside soon because wet weather is in the forecast starting Thursday.

Mayor Watson + Uber CEO: 3 takeaways from the SXSW convo

Khosrowshahi in India in February 2024. IDREES MOHAMMED/AFP via Getty Images

Dara Khosrowshahi has been the CEO of Uber since 2017. He sat down with Mayor Kirk Watson at Southby yesterday morning and chatted all things tech, transportation and sustainability. We plucked some highlights for you.

  1. Mayor Watson joked about the city’s “complicated history” with Uber right out of the gate.

Kudos to him, I guess, for acknowledging the elephant in the room. It got some good laughs from the crowd.

Austin passed an ordinance in 2015 that would have regulated Uber and Lyft like taxis. The companies didn’t love that, so they peaced out … until 2017, when they returned after Gov. Greg Abbott signed a more ride share-friendly bill.

“In hindsight, we could have handled things differently,” Khosrowshahi said. But both agreed that things are now in a different place. The Uber CEO emphasized that the company tries to work with local governments now.

  1. Project Connect is “under assault,” Watson said.

Oh yes, the city’s controversial, multibillion-dollar transit project came up. Remember that light rail we wrote about in February? And how the entity in charge was fighting a lawsuit? This is it.

“Transportation is a key part of what Austin, with all of its growth, needs to address,” Mayor Watson said, adding that “unfortunately in Texas, the word rail is a four-letter word.”

  1. The Mayor said he sees “a lot of promise” in autonomous vehicles, but “we’re not there yet.”

The comment comes as self-driving company Waymo officially started testing its humanless vehicles in Austin last week. Awkward…

Mayor Watson said “we know it’s coming, we know the good it can do,” but autonomous car operators need to solve their safety issues first. Like, you know, getting out of the way if there’s an ambulance coming. Or holding up traffic unnecessarily.

“The public good shouldn’t be the afterthought,” he said.

He also called on AV firms to nix the ego, saying: “They need to not start with, ‘We’re here to show you how to do this.'"

 — Katie Canales, Editor

The bougie-fication of SoCo continues...

South Congress is known for its boutique shops selling jewelry and leather jackets, candles and cowboy boots — and soon, Botox and porcelain dental veneers.

A cosmetic dental practice named Veneer Lounge from Frisco, north of Dallas, is planning a second location in the retail cluster at 1400 S. Congress, next to Hopdoddy Burger Bar and among shops such as ByGeorge and Ada Diamonds, according to plans submitted to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and an interview with Julie Larkins, its director of operations.

Veneer Lounge offers porcelain veneers, or “designer smiles,” which “seamlessly conceal chips, gaps and discoloration,” according to its website. The Frisco location also offers Botox, facials and micro-needling in a “spa-like atmosphere,” Larkins said. It is likely those services will be available at the Austin location, she said.

The shop would continue a trend toward luxury on the South Congress retail strip, which was once known for the off-kilter vibe of shops such as Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, which closed in 2022.

“We do bring a completely different experience to the dental world than a typical office,” Larkins said, adding that the shop will open “sometime this year.”

— Richard Webner, Contributing Reporter

Were so glad you found us. Find our bios and contact info here, or reach out at hello@austindaily.com. Behind todays send: Katie Canales, Mary Wasson and Richard Webner.