Toll roads looking emptier lately

HOUSTON The Harris County Toll Road Authority says business is not what it could be. It is seeing a reflection of trends nationwide which report that traffic itself is down between 2% and 3% from a year ago with gas prices the likely culprit.

Between March and June of 2007 and the same four months this year, total traffic has decreased by roughly 800,000 tolls. That's a slip of more than 2% and the high gas prices could be to blame.

"We also see data nationwide that our system tends to correlate with a decrease in traffic overall," said Peter Key of the Harris County Toll Road Authority. "People are driving less."

A system as large as Harris County's can certainly absorb a decrease of 2% or 3% in the short term, but in the long haul, that kind of loss can mean millions of dollars off the books.

"We are a toll road that's funded by toll revenue and not tax dollars," Key said. "So we want people on our road."

The tolls bring in roughly $1.25 million every day. That's a lot of cash, but it may not be enough down the proverbial road. And though no future projects are impacted yet, the toll road authority is always looking at raising the fare regardless of what gas prices do.

"Arbitrary toll increases I think are a thing of the past but you will see toll increases going forward with inflation," Key said.

There is no price increase planned at the moment, but when the new inflation numbers come out in the fall that could certainly change.

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