Investigative Summary:

This story is part of KXAN’s “TxTag Troubles” investigative project launched May 7, 2023. Following related reports in recent years, our team rededicated its resources to this major consumer issue, after hundreds of viewers complained to us about resurfaced billing and customer service problems with the state’s tollway operator and its contracted vendors. During our reporting, the Texas Department of Transportation began reaching out to viewers who had contacted KXAN to resolve their issues, and state lawmakers renewed their approach to fixing future TxTag problems.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Shelley Rutherford remembers struggling with northwest Austin traffic before toll roads were an option.

“We lived here when there was a four lane road, all these stoplights on (U.S. Highway) 183,” she said. “And then they built the new 183, which was amazing, but it took like five years to build.”

And then came tolls. The first section of the 183A Toll opened in March 2007. Rutherford said she and her family use the road all the time, paying out about $120 a month on tolls. But she said the time saved far outweighs the cost.

“It’s so quick. It’s so fast. Anything to get there faster, right?” Rutherford said.

Tolls in Austin: Present and future

Right now, the Austin metro has 10 toll roads in total. The Texas Department of Transportation, or TxDOT, operates four of those: most of State Highway 130 in the east, State Highway 45 N and Loop 1 in the north and State Highway 45 SE in the south.

The other six are operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, or CTRMA. That agency is responsible for 183A, 183S, 290E, 71E, State Highway 45 SW and the MoPac Express Lane.

			A map of toll roads in the Austin area. Those in red are operated by TxDOT, while those in blue are operated by CTRMA. (KXAN Graphic/Eric Henrikson)

A map of toll roads in the Austin area. Those in red are operated by TxDOT, while those in blue are operated by CTRMA. (KXAN Graphic/Eric Henrikson)

And more are coming. CTRMA’s 183 North Mobility Project will add two tolled express lanes in each direction, connecting 183A to MoPac Expressway. Improvements will also be made to the non-tolled section of US 183, with four lanes in each direction.

The 9-mile project is expected to open to drivers in January 2026.

“I’m really, really excited about the new addition from 183A all the way south,” Rutherford said. “I know not everyone loves toll roads, but I’m a big proponent.”

This map shows the scope of the 183 North Mobility Project, which will add toll lanes along a 9-mile stretch from 183A to the MoPac Expressway. (KXAN/Eric Henrikson)

This map shows the scope of the 183 North Mobility Project, which will add toll lanes along a 9-mile stretch from 183A to the MoPac Expressway. (KXAN Graphic/Eric Henrikson)

Southwest remains toll-free — but will that change?

Claire Hempel drives from Circle C to downtown Austin every day along MoPac.

“My commute into downtown is about 45 minutes to an hour,” Hempel said. Her journey home is even longer. She used to stay at work later to let the traffic thin out, but with school pickup arrangements, now she has no choice.

“Before I had a kid, it would be — I could leave at 6:30 just fine and get home without having to deal with the traffic, but I can’t do that now,” Hempel said.

Hempel, who is a planner and landscape architect, says southwest Austin is very “vehicular-oriented,” with limited public transportation options. “What I’m hopeful for is that future plans in this area would include a park and ride” to allow for quicker access to downtown, she said.

“Having a toll road or managed lane where a bus can ride in makes a lot of sense,” Hempel said. “It would maybe help make the option easier for people to choose that outside of a car if they can.”

CTRMA is looking to help alleviate traffic in the area by introducing tolled express lanes to MoPac.

In its 2021 Traffic and Revenue Study, the most recent available, CTRMA said the MoPac South Express Lane Project would bring two toll lanes in each direction along an 8-mile stretch from Slaughter Lane to the Colorado River, where the MoPac North express lanes currently end. In the study report, CTRMA said the project was “under development and assumed to be completed by 2030.”

But the project appears to have stalled. The last action taken was a public comment period which ended in January 2022, with no update since. CTRMA told KXAN it is “actively evaluating next steps” and plans to provide an official update on the project in the coming months.

“Improvements to MoPac between Cesar Chavez and Slaughter Lane are still recognized as a need in the most recent CAMPO long-range transportation plan which guides transportation improvements in the region, and the Mobility Authority remains committed to providing needed relief,” a spokesperson told KXAN.

Hundreds of millions of users

The Central Texas Turnpike System, or CTTS, comprises the four TxDOT-operated roads in the Austin region. Portions of three of those — SH 130, SH 45 N and Loop 1 — opened to traffic in October 2006, with tolling beginning in January 2007.

CTRMA operates six toll roads locally. The first to open was 183A in March 2007. Most recently, 183S opened in August 2019 and added a new tolled section the next year.

Story continues below…

History of tolls in the Austin area

Some toll roads in the Austin area are operated by TxDOT, while others are operated by CTRMA.

  • Oct. 2006: Loop 1 and the first sections of SH 45 N and SH 130 open toll-free
  • Jan. 2007: Tolling begins on Loop 1, SH 45 N and SH 130
  • March 2007: The first section of 183A opens
  • May 2009: SH 45 SE opens
  • Jan. 2013: The first section of 290E opens
  • Oct. 2016: The first section of Mopac North Express Lane opens
  • March 2017: SH 71 Express opens
  • June 2019: SH 45 SW opens
  • August 2019: The first section of 183S opens
  • Jan. 2025: The next section of 183A is projected to open
  • Jan. 2026: 183N Express Lane is projected to open
  • 2030?: Mopac South Express Lane was projected to open, according to CTRMA’s 2021 Traffic and Revenue Study. The project now appears to have stalled

Of all 10 toll roads in the Austin metro, SH 130 is the most-heavily used, with almost 87 million transactions — the number of vehicles charged — in Fiscal Year 2022. CTRMA’s most popular road is 183A, which saw more than 67 million transactions.

Its counterpart 183S is becoming increasingly popular. In FY 2020, about 8.8 million transactions were recorded. That jumped to more than 51.5 million last year, an increase of about 485% in just two years.

The chart shows the annual number of toll transactions on each toll road in the Austin metro area. Those in red are operated by TxDOT while those in blue are operated by CTRMA. CTRMA data has been adjusted to match TxDOT fiscal years. Sources: CTRMA, TxDOT. (KXAN Interactive/Christopher Adams)

In a 2002 traffic and revenue forecast prior to construction, TxDOT predicted “impressive traffic levels” on the CTTS. The forecast showed anticipated transactions for each road from 2008 through 2042.

That forecast predicted that by Fiscal Year 2022, almost 390,000 transactions would be recorded on an average weekday across the system. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, which dropped traffic levels by almost 20% between 2019 and 2020, the number of people actually using the roads in FY 2022 was well above the initial forecast.

More than 515,000 transactions were recorded on the three roads on an average weekday, 32% more than the forecast. Meanwhile, SH 45 SE joined CTTS in September 2012. With that road added, the number of daily transactions across the system last fiscal year was more than 537,000.

The chart shows the number of toll transactions on TXDOT-operated roads in the Austin area, and how they compare to previous forecasts. Source: TxDOT. (KXAN Interactive/Christopher Adams)

With the higher-than-expected traffic, TxDOT has raised projections for the future. In the initial 2002 forecast, almost 625,000 daily transactions were projected by 2042. That number has increased to 919,000 in the latest traffic forecast, published in January.

In total, more than 174.5 million transactions were recorded across the CTTS last fiscal year. TxDOT is now forecasting 301 million annual transactions by 2042.

CTRMA is projecting even higher traffic on its toll roads, in part thanks to the addition of the 183N project, which is expected to open in January 2026.

The chart shows the number of toll transactions on CTRMA-operated roads in the Austin area, and how they compare to previous forecasts. MoPac Express Lane is not included in transaction totals or forecasts. Source: CTRMA. (KXAN Interactive/Christopher Adams)

The latest forecast, from 2021, projects more than 1 million transactions will be recorded on an average weekday on CTRMA-operated toll roads by 2035. That’s projected to increase to almost 1.4 million daily transactions by 2055.

Those projections don’t include the MoPac Express Lanes, which are not part of CTRMA’s Mobility Authority System. CTRMA did not have transaction projections available for the MoPac Express Lanes.

Former Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who pushed for transportation projects when in office, said he’s not surprised travel numbers are outpacing projections.

“People, not only do they get used to it, but then they kind of expect to be able to get on the toll road,” Daugherty said. He used SH 45 SW as an example.

“We know how much growth there is in Hays County and Buda and Kyle,” Daugherty said. Before SH 45 SW opened, “You basically had to use I-35 unless you were going to come up (Farm to Market Road) 1626 and come through neighborhoods.”

In June 2019, when the toll road opened, an average of 9,835 transactions were recorded there each weekday. That more than doubled — to 19,765 — by January 2023.

Will SH 45 SE and SW be connected?

Take a look at the toll road map just south of Austin, and you’ll notice something peculiar: a gap of about 3.5 miles as the crow flies between CTRMA-operated SH 45 SW and TxDOT-operated SH 45 SE.

The gap straddles the Hays/Travis county line.

This map shows the current gap between SH 45 SW and SH 45 SE. (KXAN Graphic/Eric Henrikson)

This map shows the current gap between SH 45 SW and SH 45 SE. (KXAN Graphic/Eric Henrikson)

Hays County commissioners are backing a plan to close the gap and connect the roads. In an August 2022 meeting, commissioners gave approval to enter the engineering and design phase of the project, which is expected to take about 18 months. Commissioners approved a $2.5 million contract with engineering firm CP&Y to conduct a study into travel demand, environmental impacts and potential costs.

At the time, now-former Commissioner Mark Jones called the project “long overdue,” adding the connection will provide easier travel from Buda and Kyle to Austin.

“Studies show that about 80% of the people who live along the I-35 corridor drive into and home from Austin nearly every day,” Jones said. “This connector will help make that commute easier.”

But commissioners across the county line pushed back, saying they weren’t included in discussions about the project.

“I can’t imagine any of our constituents would be happy to wake up and discover that an enormous amount of truck traffic, and the crush of traffic on I-35, has been re-routed onto MoPac,” Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea said.

Shea and other commissioners, as well as the Travis County judge, sent a letter to their Hays County counterparts in September 2022, expressing their opposition to the project.

In that letter, they also raised environmental concerns, as the project would sit on Balcones Canyonlands Preserve lands, City of Austin Water Quality Protection lands, karst features, the Edwards Aquifer, habitats for endangered species and conservation easements.

“The increased traffic and accompanying growth would put the region’s water quality and environment at greater risk,” commissioners wrote.

“That is a huge, huge fight,” Daugherty told KXAN. “The environmental community will fight you over roads southwest. I think that that’s unfortunate because I think that we’ve shown with 45 SW that you can build a road and not devastate the environment.”

Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra, who was the lone vote against authorizing the engineering study contract, said a joint discussion between the two county courts was long overdue.

“That is my hope, that we either halt this or loop them in and not move until we move together,” Becerra said.

In the meantime, drivers, like Hempel, are tired of waiting in traffic — and concerned about the possibility of even more cars on the road in southwest Austin if SH 45 were to be connected without additional options, like public transportation and bike lanes.

“I fully believe that if there’s expansion plans to 45, it needs to be looked at holistically with the South MoPac Expressway project,” Hempel said.

But commissioners acknowledge things are still in the very early stages, on both sides of the county line.

“There are going to be people in Hays County that say this is the worst possible thing to spend their money on, and there are going to be people in Hays County that think this is one of the most important things,” Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell said in a Sept. 27 meeting. “That’s our job, is to figure out how can it be done, when can it be done, what would it cost, what are the impacts — whether it be to the environment or property owners or other governmental entities — and I think that’s where we’re just getting started.”