Man braves cars, bureaucrats to bike on tollways

Yes, Thomas wanted to ride his bike to work on the Texas 45 North tollway. Actually, Thomas does ride his bike to work on the Texas 45 North tollway — has done so since October.

Published January 28, 2008 by 
By Ben Wear

Chuck Thomas tried to get a TxTag; he really did.

Thomas, a financial analyst at Dell Inc., went on the tollway Web site and started filling in the boxes.

"I got as far as 'type of vehicle,' " he says.

That was a problem, though, because you see, there's no box for "bicycle."

Yes, Thomas wanted to ride his bike to work on the Texas 45 North tollway. Actually, Thomas does ride his bike to work on the Texas 45 North tollway — has done so since October.

As far as I know, he's the only tollway bicycle commuter in Austin. And as far as I know, he's not deranged.

The Texas Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety aren't quite so sure. Thomas e-mailed TxDOT back in early October, inquiring about the legality of riding a bicycle on the four tollways here in Austin (TxDOT runs three of them, including Texas 45 North). He expected to hear that what he had in mind was against the law. To his great surprise, it isn't. Not yet, anyway.

Marcus Cooper, a spokesman for TxDOT's Austin district, replied in an e-mail to Thomas that the agency really wishes he wouldn't do it, that the tollways are designed for cars going 70 mph and that entrance and exit ramps would be especially problematic because the shoulders are thinner than on the highway proper.

"However, if it comes down to it, (it) is not against the law," Cooper concluded.

So Thomas, who has commuted by bicycle his whole working life (he's 43), started using Texas 45 North last fall. He and his family had moved west of Lakeline Mall off RM 620, rendering his former McNeil Drive commuting route well out of the way. The tollway is a straight shot, about 14 miles portal to portal. The ride takes about an hour.

He uses the shoulders, of course, not the highway lanes. The shoulders are a spacious 8 feet wide, Thomas says, and, being relatively new and made of concrete, are unusually smooth. There's very little trash, unlike Loop 360, for instance, where many cyclists ride, and traffic is much lighter than on 360 or other Austin highways. He says he feels safe.

There have been obstacles, though, mostly of the organic life-form variety. He began pulling into tollbooths at the Lake Creek plaza and asking what he needed to pay. Sometimes they charged him the 75-cent toll, sometimes not. But many times, in the early weeks, they told him he wasn't supposed to be riding there with his $600 Fuji Silhouette bike and its special commuter tires coated with Kevlar.

He carries a copy of the Cooper e-mail as a sort of hall pass, and that tended to do the trick.

"I'm not trying to freeload on anything," Thomas says. "I'm perfectly willing to pay a reasonable fee for a 30-pound bicycle." Whatever that might be.

TxDOT has since determined that it can legally charge tolls only on motorized vehicles, and the tollbooth hassles have ceased.

State troopers have pulled him over twice. He flashed the e-mail at 'em.

"Now they wave at me," Thomas says.

Then there's his wife, Pei. They have a 14-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy. Thomas said that, philosophically, his wife likes that he's doing something ecofriendly. And that it keeps him in shape (5 foot 11 inches tall and a sturdy, wind-resistant 200 pounds) and saves the family money (they have just one car).

"But she's concerned about the danger," he says. "There is some risk."

Thomas stays well to the outside on the shoulders, and he has developed strategies to minimize his exposure time on the ramps. He says his exit at La Frontera Boulevard has a 6-foot shoulder and is lightly used because most eastbound Dell commuters take an exit east of Interstate 35 instead.

Despite the well-publicized deaths of a couple of cyclists in the past couple of years, both on Loop 360, Thomas said he is not frightened while riding on the tollway.

"I would like some company, though," Thomas wrote in a blast e-mail he sent to a cyclist forum in November.

Thomas has yet to see another cyclist on the tollway, and he's worried that if some don't join him, the powers that be might ban turnpike biking. The Texas Transportation Commission has the authority to do so, according to TxDOT, but hasn't.

"I would like to have some momentum (number of cyclists) to fight it in case that happens," he wrote in that posting.

Thomas never did get that TxTag, by the way. After being foiled on the Internet, he phoned the tag office and inquired. Given that he has no windshield for the tag, and the general oddity of his request, the tollway folks decided not to complete the sale.

"It jangled them," Thomas says. "I'm sure they had a good laugh and shared it around the water cooler."

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