Many veterans return home from war with serious injuries requiring frequent medical care. According to the Department of Defense, approximately 52,000 soldiers have been wounded in action in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
When veterans come back home, some have to travel hundreds of miles to get the treatment they need from Veteran Affairs hospitals. When you travel that far – and usually to major metro cities for care – toll roads are often the fastest and most direct routes. In the Austin-area, we have several options.
Over the last several months, KXAN has received complaints from some veterans confused about a program meant to give them access to tollways for free. When charges started showing up in the mail, they realized it’s not so simple because not every tolling authority participates.
In 2009, Texas lawmakers created a program that appeared to be a great benefit for veterans. The idea is if you have a disabled veteran, Purple Heart or Medal of Honor license plate, you don’t have to pay toll fees. Statewide, that’s nearly 217,000 vets. Here in Travis, Williamson and Hays Counties it’s more than 13,000.
For some of those soldiers, like Marcus Burleson, this program turned out too good to be true. His story starts on the other side of the world.
“It was Dec. 9, 2011. We were on a dismounted patrol just outside of Afghanistan in the northern providence,” recalls Burleson.
It was a moment that changed his life forever.
“Me and my team member noticed something suspicious in an alleyway we were going to have to go through on our way out. While I was in the middle of my procedure it detonated with me kneeling over it.”
Two weeks after the bomb went off, this Marine woke up in a hospital back home and stayed there for more than two years.
“I broke my neck, broke nine bones in my face and completely shattered the left side of my eye socket. I am completely blind in my left eye.”
Now, a double amputee with one prosthetic hand, Burleson says he drives 100 miles from Austin to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio at least once a month for treatment.
“I mean, it’s a little bit more difficult for me to get around then it is for some.”
That’s the reason state lawmakers created the Veterans Discount Program. If you’re a vet making that trek and want to bypass the traffic and delays of Ih-35, tollways might be the better option. But it’s confusing because each tollway is owned and operated differently.
For example, if you’re going from Leander to San Antonio, you can take 183A, which is managed by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, to the TxDOT managed, state-funded SH 45 north and then connect to the northern section of SH 130, but once you get past Travis County on SH 130, it turns into a privately-run section of SH 130. The TxDOT stretch is free for veterans. But the other toll roads still charge them. Right now, the law says it’s optional.
When asked why the CTRMA doesn’t provide free tolls for veterans, CTRMA Executive Director Mike Helegenstein says, “We’ve thought about it, we’ve worked on it, we’ve developed the numbers and we’re having a hard time making all that work right now.”
Helegenstein says waiving fees for vets would mean CTRMA would lose around $900,000 a year.
“It’s a matter of cost right now. I think its cost and where do we stop it?” says Helgenstein.
A handful of proposals at the Capitol this session, including one from Central Texas Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, would require all toll authorities to give vets free access.
Rep. Isaac says, “We need to be clear on that for our veterans and I think the easiest way to do that is to make all the toll roads free for our disabled veterans.”
Isaac’s bill would also allow the legislature to appropriate funds to help toll entities bear those costs. But time is short. The session is winding down and the bill has been awaiting a hearing before the House Defense and Veterans’ Affairs Committee since February.
KXAN shared veterans’ concerns with Committee Chairwoman Susan King, R-Abilene. While it might be too late this session, she promised to study the issue before the 2017 legislative session.
“Can I magically produce money and appropriate that to people for this purpose? The answer is ‘no, I cannot,’” explains King. “However going forward there’s a possibility this can be brought to the legislature. Yes, I do have a lot more ability to steer and look at and bring this to light and so it will be my intent to do that.”
A promise Burleson hopes is more than just political banter. “I think it would be a great thing. I think it would be a great show of faith toward the veterans that have served the country.”
Both the CTRMA and the SH 130 Concession Company tell KXAN if there were funding from the State -and they didn’t have to foot the bill- they would implement the program. Megan Compton, a spokesperson for SH 130 Concession Co. says, “The southern portion of SH 130 is not included in the current state discount toll program for veterans. We would like to participate should the state expand and fund veteran exemptions to other toll roads in Texas.”
TxDOT is already having issues paying for the current program. TxDOT asked state lawmakers for more than $5 million over the next two years to help offset losses.
Below is a list of the roads throughout Texas (managed by TxDOT) where select veterans with specialty plates can travel toll free.
- SH 255 (near Laredo)
- DFWC (Dallas Fort Worth Connector)
- Grand Parkway D&E (Houston)
- SH 99 (Segments I-2) (Houston)
While not every toll road in Texas is free for veterans, there are other benefits and discounts that veterans are able to receive.
Disabled veterans may be eligible for parking placards, parking privileges and free driver’s license. Veterans can also receive discounts on concealed handgun license fees and admission to state parks.