Friday, April 16, 2010

To Toll or Not To Toll? Who Can Tell?

Back home, there's been controversy lately about plans to add toll lanes to some of the local highways. Personally, I haven't had much of an opinion about the whole issue, other than a principled sense that people who have already paid millions of dollars of tax money to build and maintain highways shouldn't then have to pay to use them; and a suspicion that the recent increase in "interest" on the subject is more to do with the chance for certain companies to make a buck than any real need for tollways.

But my experience of such things was limited by the fact that there aren't any toll roads around. I hear there's a new one open, bypassing Austin, and that certainly sounds like a good idea. The Dallas North Tollway seems useful and I've even used it on occasion -- it's worth almost any price to avoid Central Expressway. I was on a toll road in Illinois not too long ago, and apparently went through a toll area without paying (because I don't have whatever kind of toll tag they use up there), but I never heard about it from The Powers That Be, so I don't much care now. And there are toll roads in Oklahoma that I've been on, sometimes on purpose. And the new ones in Mexico, which are great, as long as you have enough cash.

So coming into Houston in the High-Occupancy Vehicle lane, I started seeing signs for something called the Katy Tollway. I assumed this was one of the raft of new ring roads that seem to be all the rage in Houston. I kept left, for the HOV lane.

After a while of seeing nothing but Katy Tollway signs, plus another sign that appeared to pair it with Interstate 10 -- the road I believed myself to be on -- it dawned on me that they must have made the HOV lanes a toll road. (This seems counter-productive.) I think it's strange that they would suddenly put drivers in a toll-road without some kind of indication. (There was a sign that said "Katy Tollway Last Free Exit," but since I didn't know I was on, or going onto, the Katy Tollway, it meant nothing to me at the time.)

So I don't know, maybe I'll get a nasty letter from some Spanish-owned toll road operator saying I owe them some phenomenal amount in fines ... although the toll for High-Occupancy Vehicles at that time of day, according to a sign I saw near the end of this putative tollway, was zero.

I guess if I'm going to continue driving in the United States, I'm going to have to look into one of these toll-tag things. If for no other reason than they kind of spring these toll roads on you, expecting strangers to decipher the locally-known meanings of unusual signs at 70mph.

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