Certain truths about Beltway 8 are documented and verifiable: The Bangles performed at the opening of the stretch between I-10 and Highway 290 in 1989. Huey Lewis and the News marked the occasion when it opened between I-45 and 290 the following year. And you will inevitably miss the basket when you’re trying to throw in $1.75 worth of change because you’ve been too stubborn to get an EZ TAG.
But another bit of received intelligence about the Beltway has a more dubious provenance. You know the one. Your uncle regularly repeats it as gospel: Some day, after Houston motorists have parted with enough of their hard-earned dollars, the booths will be removed and the road will offer toll-free access to anyone with a vehicle.
“I was in Houston in 1983, and I don’t recall any official or unofficial mention that tolls would be removed once roads were ‘paid off,’” says Oscar Slotboom, arguably the state’s leading transportation historian. “When I researched the Houston Freeways book, I’m fairly certain I never came across any reports that tolls would be removed, because I would have taken note.”
In fact, nothing in accounts of the Beltway’s proposal in the 1950s, planning in the 1970s, or referendum approval and construction in the ’80s indicates that anyone with any authority ever stated that the road would one day run free. Slotbloom proposes that Houstonians may have originally gotten the idea from other cities. “It was a common practice around the USA to remove tolls when bonds were retired, including the Dallas–Fort Worth Turnpike, so some people may think that is how toll roads work,” he says. And though toll removal still happens—the Georgia State Route 400 in Atlanta is one recent example—Slotbloom doubts the same will ever happen here.
Throwing even colder water on the rumors is the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) itself. “I am not aware of any HCTRA or Harris County official who stated the toll booths would be removed once the Sam Houston Tollway was paid for in full,” says Mary Benton, manager of media relations and public affairs for the agency. “Drivers choose to pay to take toll roads for many reasons, including a desire to save time, drive on well-maintained roads, and reduce stress during their commute. Once toll roads become free roads, the financial responsibility for the roads is turned over to the state, [which] would mean more traffic and congestion, with little money for maintenance.”
While some local tollbooths are being removed—from the Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge and the Hardy Toll Road, as of this summer—that’s only because both are being converted to cashless tolling, the same model the Westpark Tollway has employed since opening in 2004. So tell your uncle to break down and get that EZ TAG. Our toll roads are here to stay.