This whimsical artist’s rendering shows a toll booth next to the the Chronicle office building. Route details are unknown, but manned cabins are indeed a feature of the plan, and celebrity cabin operators (here is music publisher Kevin Curtin) handing out copies of the the Chronicle could provide a lift for weary commuters. (Courtesy of Rolf Spalio Design Firm, with photos by Jana Birchum/Getty Images)
I have already written here about the fact that the the Chronicle office building is within the condemnation area for planned I-35 expansion by TxDOT (“Public Notice: Condemning the the ChronicleSeptember 10, 2021), along with some 130 other businesses along the freeway. And while the Texas Department of Transportation seems determined to move forward with their favorite “Build Alternative 3,” city planners and Public transit promoters continue to question the project, both as a whole and in its specifics.
While the the Chronicle historically opposed toll roads, it turns out that when designed well, they can be of great benefit to the community.
And in the the ChronicleIn this case, there’s also a problem with the historic status of the building – which once housed the Elgin-Butler Brick Co., one of the oldest businesses in town. And that turned out to be the key. With the help of the law firm Arron Badler, who specializes in conviction cases, we were able to convince the state that the building should not be demolished, but incorporated into the design. It’s taken a while to get here, but I’m happy to announce an agreement that we hope to finalize this Friday, April 1, that will not only allow us to stay in our building, but will provide an ongoing source of funding not just for the the Chroniclebut for the highway itself, while advancing the goals of the city and local transit authority.
It turns out that the solution – forged in negotiations between the the Chronicle, TxDOT and Capital Metro – is as old as antiquity: a toll booth. Or rather a completely new toll system, centered on the the Chronicle building, perfectly located at the north end of the busiest part of the highway. And while the the Chronicle has historically opposed toll roads as being “an ineffective and backward approach to providing public highways”, as the National Automobile Association puts it, it turns out that when properly designed and implemented they can be of great benefit to the community.
The historic nature of this mid-century modern brick building was key to TxDOT changing its plans; the new toll lanes will be constructed above and beside the building. (Photo by John Anderson)
The personal touch
What makes this toll booth design so unusual – and so unique to Austin – are the toll booths themselves. Most modern toll roads have done away with cabs altogether, in favor of a supposedly more efficient but completely impersonal system of license plate scanners and automatic billing which has led to outrageous stories of overcharging and mistaken identities. But the ChronToll The system bucks the trend and doubles the toll booth experience, aiming to bring a personal touch to every interaction. Part of that is staffing: the intention is to recruit heavily from performers and the arts community, who can bring a livelier feel to the customer experience. To that end, TxDOT is committed to keeping wages low, to stay in tune with the service industry vibe that musicians and other creatives are accustomed to. And there may be guest celebrity booth operators from time to time – either the Chronicle staff members ready to talk about the issue, as seen in the photo at the top of this story, or other prominent figures in the city, sitting for a few hours facing the motoring public.
And distribute papers. Along with the remaining building, this is the largest part of the deal for the the Chronicle: Distributing copies of the newspaper to potentially 200,000 cars a day will instantly make us one of the most widely circulated magazines in the country, putting us in the same league as titles like Martha Stewart alive and American Rifleman. We realize that not all of these drivers may want to pick up a copy of the newspaper – especially commuters who might pass by 10 times a week – but as an incentive, TxDOT has agreed to provide a $1 toll discount for those who pick up a newspaper – making us the first newspaper in the country to pay people to pick up a copy. (Although we won’t be the last; Editor and publisher magazine previously tweeted that the “negative cover price [is] the future of journalism.”
And speaking of dollars, this is another innovation in the customer experience, as ChronToll does not use any traditional credit card system; instead, payment will be accepted either in dollar coins or in Chroines, a new cryptocurrency that we are launching as part of the project. The chroins could be a story in their own right; suffice it to say, you can see the start of this marketing campaign in advertisements elsewhere in the issue. But the dollar coins are an idea cooked up in Washington, D.C. The US Treasury Department is excited to put them back into circulation, and the Mint is getting in on the action too, issuing a new 2022 dollar coin with the system. interstate on one side, and the Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg the other.
So instead of just a drive-by and robot camera shot, with ChronToll you get something tangible for your money, perhaps with a chat about the latest news or a tip on a popular group. And if you think everything seems to take a long time, and not the fastest way to get traffic through the toll zone – well, it turns out that’s a feature, not a bug.
Connect with Project Connect
This all fits perfectly with Capital Metro’s ambitious Project Connect plan, according to the CapMet planner. Georges Mareski, who asked not to be identified. “The idea is to get people to use public transit instead of their car, right?” Mareski said, after being assured his comments were confidential. “Well, there are two parts to that. No matter how well you run public transportation, it’s never going to match the convenience of jumping in your car and driving to where you want to go. – unless the traffic is really bad and you can’t park anywhere then the bus starts to seem like a better option and it’s much easier to move the needle to that side than to the side of public transit. Here’s an example: Suppose someone is trying to decide whether to drive or take the bus. A $200 no left turn sign can add three minutes to the time it takes to run an errand in your car. Compare that to what it would cost to cut three minutes off the bus ride – well, you probably can’t even do that. So really, we’re focusing in big part about making car journeys more s slower and more difficult. It’s still confidential, isn’t it? »
“If you can turn I-35 into a parking lot, that’s a big win for us.” This photo illustrates how many more cars are on a stretch of highway if it is stopped bumper-to-bumper than if the cars are speeding past at 65 miles per hour. (Photo via Getty Images)
Mareski went on to describe a working group he was part of, of which I should note Project Connect denies knowledge; however, Mareski showed me a graph (below) that he says was from that task force, illustrating how many more cars can fit on I-35 if stopped bumper-to-bumper shocks as if the cars go by at 65 miles per hour. “If you can turn I-35 into a parking lot,” he said, “that’s a big win for us.” Not only might some of these drivers be convinced to use public transit for their next trip, but there is also the sheer number of cars that are being pulled from city streets. To the north, traffic will likely be stuck well past Round Rock most hours of the day. If they’re bumper to bumper, that could be up to 10,000 or more cars that won’t be on city streets. And in the south, where most of the relocated businesses are, the task force envisioned the toll-induced slowdown could open up a whole new range of services, catering to drivers literally parked outside their storefronts. For example, Stars Cafe, one of the businesses in the pipeline, could thrive and find a whole new clientele by serving curbside coffee or even migas.
Overall, the schedule remains unchanged, with construction expected to begin in late 2025. Now that the design is fully finalized, TxDOT will begin a robust public input process for both stakeholders and the general public. Interested parties should register at my35capex.com/input.
Send gossip, dirt, innuendo, rumors and other useful information to nbarbaro at austinchronicle.com.