Ask 2: Why do we still have to pay Beltway 8 tolls even after its construction is complete?

Signs indicate lanes that only accept EZ Tags on a Houston-area toll road in this undated image. (KPRC)

HOUSTONAt KPRC 2, we’re dedicated to keeping Houstonians informed. As part of our new Ask 2 series, the newsroom will answer your questions about all things Houston.

The question: Why do we still have to pay Beltway 8 tolls? When voters approved the plans we were told that they would stop once the project was complete!

The answer: There is a lot of confusion about why we still have to pay tolls not only on Beltway 8, but all other toll roads around Harris County. The short answer is that we are still paying for initial toll road construction and, as with all roads, we have to pay for ongoing maintenance. Both of those expenses are covered by tolls.

Interstate highways like IH-10, IH-45, and IH-69 are considered “free” by many people -- hence the term “freeway”. But the truth is that they are anything but free. They are all funded by state and federal gas taxes. In Texas, for every gallon of gasoline we buy, we pay a 20 cent state tax and an 18.4 cent federal tax. That means that 38.4 cents from every gallon of gas you buy goes straight to the government for road construction, maintenance and replacement. In fact, gasoline is one of the most highly-taxed products in the nation. And if you think we pay a lot in Texas, consider California, where the total gas tax per gallon is 73.58 cents. In Pennsylvania it’s even higher -- 77.1 cents!

Now lets turn to toll roads. They are not funded by taxes. Rather, in the case of Harris County toll roads, the county sells bonds to pay for initial road construction, and those bonds have to be paid back. Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) Assistant Director of Communications Patti Evans says, “It’s a common misconception that Harris County toll roads are paid off, but that is not correct. Harris County continues to pay off bonds that were sold to pay for the design and construction of the existing toll road system.”

That’s where tolls come in. Tolls pay back the bonds sold to fund the road construction. But that’s not all. According to Evans, “Unlike the state highway funding mechanism, tolling provides a built-in source for maintenance and replacement and renewal costs. The older a road network is, the greater the maintenance costs are and eventually, roads must be replaced.”

As we all know, road maintenance and its associated price tag doesn’t go away, so we shouldn’t expect the tolls on the Sam Houston Tollway and other toll roads around town to go away, either!

There is a bright spot to paying tolls in Harris County, though. Rest assured that the 100 percent of the money you pay in tolls stays right here in Harris County to pay for our own roads. On the other hand, money we pay in gas taxes is dispersed statewide -- and in the case of the federal gas tax, nationally!

If you have any more questions, regarding the Harris County Toll Road Authority, please visit their website.

Do you have a burning H-Town-related question? Send it our way, and we will try to hunt down an answer.


About the Author:

Meteorologist, runner, triathlete and proud Houstonian.