Pennies from HCTRA

Maybe it’s just me, but I thought this story about a potential toll road rate increase in Harris County was amusing.

When the Harris County Commissioners Court gave the Toll Road Authority permission to raise rates by 25 cents in 2007, it also authorized annual smaller increases to keep up with the rising cost of building and maintaining the toll road network. To make future increases transparent and objective, the court set the annual increase at the rate of inflation or 2 percent, whichever is greater.

But Peter Key, HCTRA’s deputy director, said he and his staff still are trying to determine how much of an increase to seek this year as they weigh varying inflation estimates and evaluate a rate hike’s potential impact on the system.

For example, Key said, the toll road authority is not sure whether it should use the current inflation rate or the average rate for 2008 and whether it should rely on figures for the nation or the Houston area.

There also is the question of rounding.

Many main lanes and ramps charge drivers with EZ-Tags $1.25, while drivers paying cash are charged $1.50.

It would be easy to charge EZ-Tag users $1.28, assuming a 2 percent increase were adopted, because their accounts are linked to credit cards. But if toll booth operators have to make change for $1.53, or even $1.55, “traffic will be bogged down to a level that basically breaks” the system, Key said.

About one-fourth of the HCTRA’s 1 million daily transactions are paid in cash.

I guess installing those “Take a penny/Leave a penny” cups outside each manned tool booth wouldn’t help, would it? Too bad.

Here’s the thing: I think HCTRA should view this as an opportunity, not a problem. I mean, so what if making the toll $1.55 for cash-paying customers makes those lines longer? Seems to me HCTRA’s ultimate goal here is to get away from using cash for the tolls altogether. If the experience of waiting in line to hand a buck fifty-five to a person becomes sufficiently unpleasant, wouldn’t you expect more people to get themselves an EZ Pass tag so they don’t have to deal with it any more? I’ll bet this problem solves itself in a matter of weeks. It’s basically the same concept as congestion pricing, only here you get to pay less for the faster ride. I can’t believe this thought hasn’t occurred to them. What do you think?

In the end, it may not matter much, since Commissioners Court didn’t exactly receive this news with open arms. One way or the other, though, I think this will happen eventually, and I think the effects may wind up being mitigated by more people shifting to EZ Pass tags.

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