HOUSTON – Time is money. That’s one reason many drivers pay to travel on toll roads in the Greater Houston area. But if you’re not watching your statements, you may not realize rates are rising and they’re going up much faster on some roads than others. Our KPRC 2 Investigates team is checking out what some drivers say is highway robbery.
Five days a week, Kimberly Lundgren travels 30 miles roundtrip from her home in Rosharon to her job in southwest Houston. When the 288 Expressway opened in November 2020, she quickly realized paying a little money to use it made for a much quicker commute.
“It saves me about 10 to 15 minutes,” said Lundgren.
But what she saved in time she quickly lost in money when the rates for the 288 Expressway shot way up. Take a look.
“Oh my gosh. What happened?” said Lundgren.
“We got a lot of feedback from citizens, a lot of them concerned,” said Brazoria County engineer Matt Hanks.
Toll road increase on 288 Expressway
Brazoria County engineer Matt Hanks said a lot of people were upset. And the county had to explain that the Brazoria County Toll Road Authority only manages the 5-mile section of the 288-Expressway inside Brazoria County. The 10-mile section inside Harris County is owned and operated by the Texas Department of Transportation.
TxDOT contracted with a private company called Blueridge Transportation group to manage the 10-mile stretch. Traveling the entire 10 miles during rush-hour in November 2020 would have cost you $5.10. Today, driving the route during the same peak time is 86% more at $11.51.
“I don’t really feel that the price increase was fair,” said Lundgren.
And neither did the Brazoria County Toll Road Authority. They only raised rates once since the road opened in 2020 by $0.85.
“We had to really think, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Is it the fair thing to do?’ You know, we put all those things into account,” said Hanks.
Why have there been so many toll road increases?
Blueridge Transportation Group has raised rates on he 288 Expressway seven times since it opened in November 2020. KPRC 2 Investigates asked why it raised rates so sharply and so often in less than two years. BTG public information officer Raynese Edwards declined our request for an interview and sent these answers to our questions instead:
KPRC 2 Amy Davis: Can you please tell me about every toll increase that has taken effect on the SH 288 Express Toll Lanes since they opened?
Edwards: “BTG constructed the SH 288 Express Lanes as a safe and convenient travel alternative to the general-purpose lanes. Rates are reviewed monthly, per our agreement with the state.
2021 was the first year of operations of the toll lanes and there were frequent rate adjustments to accommodate the traffic in the new corridor.”
KPRC 2 Amy Davis: What is the reason the Blueridge Transportation Group raised rates so sharply on Jan. 1st- more than a 40% increase? No other toll road authority in the greater Houston area increased rates more than 6%.
Edwards: “Express Lane rates fluctuate to manage demand during a specific time-of-day and day-of-the-week. Rate updates considers historic and future traffic behavior taking special events and other seasonal changes into account.
In light of the first year being an adjustment year - due to project ramp up, changes in traffic patterns, and the effects of COVID , we did see fluctuations in rates throughout the year.”
288 Expressway rate increases expected to stop
“The good news is we do believe the toll rate increase in the Harris county section will slow, moving forward,” said Hanks.
The Brazoria County engineer explained that TxDOT put a cap on tolls in its contract with BTG, not allowing Blueridge to charge more than $1.06 per mile ($0.75 by 2012 standards). They are now at that maximum allowed rate. It is, by far, the most expensive toll road in our area. Hanks said that the state’s contract with BTG stipulates that once the rates reach that cap, they can only be increased further if traffic gets so bad on the 288 Expressway that cars can not drive greater than 45 miles an hour.
Grand Parkway toll increases
We checked every toll road in the Greater Houston area. Tx-DOT, which manages most of the Grand Parkway raised tolls to the maximum allowed under its own rules. That’s a 6% increase from 2021 to 2022.
In the Cypress area, for example, the main lane plaza south of FM 529 (between I-10 & Highway 6) collects $2.34 now, up from $2.20 last year.
Drivers who paid on average 21 to 23 cents a mile last year on the sections of the Grand Parkway managed by TxDOT are paying 23 to 24 cents a mile this year.
Harris County Toll Road rates
The Harris County Toll Road Authority that manages the Sam Houston Tollway, Hardy Toll Road, the Westpark Tollway, the Tomball Tollway, and the Fort Bend County Extension said they haven’t had a toll increase since September 2015. And they don’t plan on having one this year.
Fort Bend and Montgomery County Toll Road rates
The toll lanes on State Highway 249 in Montgomery County went from $1.28 to $1.31 and from $0.51 to $0.52.
When the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority was established, its rules stated that they are required to raised rates every year- by 2% or the same rate of the Consumer Price Index for our area. Because the CPI was 5.3%, Fort Bend County Commissioners voted to pass a smaller increase of just over 3%. This means all 2-axle vehicles will pay 1 penny more on the Fort Bend Parkway and 2 cents more at each toll booth on the Westpark Tollway.
The Fort Bend Grand Parkway Toll Road Authority (the County) manages the portion of the Grand Parkway within Fort Bend County. Mike Stone, the chief operating officer of the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority and the Fort Bend Grand Parkway Toll Road Authority explained the increase by email.
“Those bond covenants don’t have any wiggle room, the Authority (County) is required to adjust the rate by the full CPI. It means on the Grand Parkway in Fort Bend County, you will pay $0.42 instead of $0.40 at each toll plaza,” said Stone.
“The Authority doesn’t get any money to construct or maintain the roads except for the tolls collected. This includes paying off the millions in bonds needed to construct the roads,” Stone added.
Look out for the next rate increase in 2023
The rules for every toll road authority we checked (with the exception of HCTRA) call for a rate increase on January 1st of each new year. Those rates will go up by the greater of: 2% or the current increase in the Consumer Price Index, not to exceed 6%.