AUSTIN (KXAN) — Disabled veterans, and recipients of Purple Heart awards, Legion of Merit and Medal of Honor will be able to drive free on three more Central Texas toll roads starting this fall.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’s board of directors approved the measure Wednesday morning, saying it will only apply to US 183-A, US 290 and State Highway 71. The fee waiver will not apply to CTRMA’s MoPac Express Lane, which uses variable toll pricing to bill customers based on traffic flow at the time a driver goes through a toll road.
The Qualified Veterans Discounted Program is expected to go into effect in November, and CTRMA says it expects to lose about $1 million in revenue this calendar year as a result of the program.
CTRMA looked at the financial impacts of allowing the waiver to apply to one plate per qualified veteran versus two plates per veteran – a difference of a $1 million financial loss versus $1.4 million in financial loss respectively.
CTRMA approved that the measure only apply to one plate per veteran at the onset, but could consider expanding the program. The entity initially expected the waiver of tolls would be supported through funding by the state, but that hasn’t happened, leading to a delay in its implementation of a program.
“While not funded through an appropriation from the State, staff has outlined a program that seeks to balance the spirit of the legislation, the desires of our valued veteran customer base and good financial stewardship,” according to CTRMA.
CTRMA was the only toll road operator in Texas not offering some type of discount for veterans.
Board member John Langmore recommended the program expire at the end of 2021, if not reauthorized. CTRMA estimates show an anticipated financial loss of between $1.8 million and $2.1 million in 2021. Some board members hope reexamining the program over the next several years will give the legislature an opportunity to decide whether or not the state can help CTRMA fund its program.
Board members discussed the measure prior to approving it, saying they hope to consider whether or not there are other ways they can help serve veterans, such as donating money to programs for veterans, instead of offering a waiver. But CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said the money would have to go back into the road system and not unrelated programs.
Members ultimately wanted to act now to implement some sort of a program for veterans.
“The veterans are asking us to do this,” Vice Chairman Nikelle S. Meade said. “I’m fully in support of it.”
The move does come about nine years after the Legislature approved a bill allowing toll entities to establish a discount program for veterans. Some wonder why it’s taken so long for CTRMA to act.
“In 2010, the (CTRMA) passed a resolution that said they wanted to offer these discounts to veterans and I just think waiting that long is not right,” Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park told KXAN earlier this month. “It should have been done a long time ago. It shouldn’t take me to get them started, but I’m glad they’re looking at it.”
According to CTMRA’s timeline for the program, they’ll spend the summer designing a customer service registration portal and making website changes, as well as reaching out to qualified veterans who currently drive on CTRMA tollways.
The program is expected to launch in November. Qualified veterans will need to resolve all unpaid tolls before they can participate in the program. They’ll also need to use CTRMA’s online portal to register their qualified license plate and toll tag account.
Dale said he is encouraging disabled and combat-wounded veterans to contact CTRMA should they want tolls also waived on MoPac Express Lane. CTRMA previously said since tolls on that roadway are based on traffic flow, waiving fees for veterans would drive up the cost for other drivers.
“It needs to be uniform throughout the state,” Dale said. “These people have given a lot for their country and they don’t really ask for much in return. It’s really the least we can do.”