August 24, 2004
Pay toll

Toll road madness has spread to the Dallas area.

"It's a way to raise money, and the money comes right back here," said Denton County Judge Mary Horn, whose county is considering tolls along State Highway 121. "The bottom line is, there isn't enough money, state or federal, for us to do what we need to do."

The McKinney City Council, eager to get money for expansion of U.S. Highway 75, passed a resolution last week supporting the Highway 121 conversion, hoping some of the tolls on that road could cover some of the U.S. 75 work.


In the last year, state leaders have led the charge for conversion of state highways to toll roads. In Houston, 1,000 people attended a recent meeting to oppose placing tolls on a state highway.

The issue is also dividing other regions of Texas. Officials in El Paso say they are losing out on a share of the newly created $3 billion Texas Mobility Fund because they do not want to convert any highways to toll roads. El Paso's reluctance has led North Texas leaders to seek some of that city's share of the mobility fund.

Not to mention spurring a recall effort in Austin, where the recent approval of a big toll road plan has a lot of people seeing red.

The reason for the toll road plan comes down to how state leaders best believe they can raise more money for transportation. The state collects a tax on gasoline of 20 cents per gallon, and all of that roughly $1.7 billion annual revenue pays for maintaining the highway system. An additional $1.3 billion in highway expansion money comes to Texas from the federal 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax.

This year, a Dallas Morning News analysis showed that Texas ranked 42nd in state fuel tax raised per capita and 39th in state fuel tax raised per lane mile of highway. But the political climate has state leaders looking at other ways to raise road construction funds.

"I do share the governor's view that general taxes are bad if you've got an alternative," Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said.

Tolls are preferable to a gas tax increase, Ms. Horn said. [Collin County Judge Ron] Harris had a slightly different opinion.

"All anyone wants to talk about is lowering taxes. In the meantime, our infrastructure is crumbling," said Mr. Harris, a past toll road supporter who said he wants to move expeditiously on the Highway 121 proposal but who also needs more guarantees that toll road revenue collected in Collin County will remain there.

I view the building of toll roads that I'll never use in much the same way that I view the lottery: if you don't want my contribution to the greater good of the state, hey, who am I to complain? I think Judge Harris' comment is dead-on, and I think this is an example of the pernicious effects of monotonic anti-tax rhetoric. We can't even talk about properly funding things that everyone agrees are an appropriate use of government resources because somebody somewhere might see a tax increase of some kind, and tax increases are, as toll road opponent Randy Jenkins says, "almost like selling your soul to the devil".

As a matter of public policy, I don't have any problem with the concept of toll roads, though I'm not convinced that that's any better a financing vehicle than bonds and gasoline taxes are. I'm just amazed that the rhetoric over taxation has gotten sufficiently toxic that toll roads are now considered the default option. What's next?

On a side note, does anyone know if the snazzy new Westpark Tollroad has met its usage projections so far? Seems to me it ought to be pretty easy to figure out how much traffic it's had, but I haven't seen anything in the news on it.

UPDATE: Kevin points to this DMN story about the potential political fallout to all of these toll road proposals, which are now identified with Governor Perry and opposed by both Comptroller Strayhorn and Senator Hutchison. He's excerpted most of it, but I want to highlight this quote:

"Our belief, and Governor Perry's firm belief, is that leaders lead, and ... they have to take chances," said Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission and a longtime Perry political ally. "They can't take the easy way out. ... They suffer the consequences and advance civilization."

See, "leading" to me would include explaining the costs and benefits of all this road construction in a straightforward and understandable manner, and having an actual discussion about the best way to pay those costs. Maybe even, you know, voting on some of these options, like we had to do umpty-um times to get a rail line built in Houston. What's happening in Austin and Dallas and elsewhere that's now causing such a ruckus strikes me as "the easy way out", though it sure looks like it won't be so easy in the end. If toll roads, which appear to be the default option thanks to the prevailing anti-tax orthodoxy, wind up being the political death of Rick Perry, it will truly be poetic justice.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 24, 2004 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

"What's next" is the construction of a user fee society (after the complete demolition of the society in which there are some public goods that we all use and all pay for). After toll roads come recreation fees and fire protection fees and so on. It accelerates the class based society. If you can privately afford the service, you can use (purchase) it. If you can't afford the service, no matter how badly you need it (ride on the road to get to work? take the baby to the hospital?), you don't get to use it. It is the Republicn version of nirvana.


Posted by: charles on August 24, 2004 2:08 PM

I took the Westpark Toll Road to work one morning for grins about a week after it opened. It is indeed snazzy, and mine was - literally - the only car on it from 59 to the West Sam Houston Parkway.

Posted by: Pete on August 24, 2004 2:53 PM

Commenting on your update, Chuck, where you say, "Maybe even, you know, voting on some of these options, like we had to do umpty-um times to get a rail line built in Houston."

I would caution that voting on these things will only go so far. In Santa Clara County, California, my former home, county voters overcame an almost impossible 2/3-vote requirement (imposed by the famous -- or infamous if you prefer -- Proposition 13) and voted overwhelmingly to extend a half-cent sales tax set to expire for another 20 years in order to extend the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system into San Jose and Santa Clara County.

Guess what? Amidst all the budget woes and projected shortfalls now, it's starting to look like BART may not come at all. Oh, they are still spending the money on bus lines, studies for light rail bridges from San Jose to the closest existing BART station in Fremont (about 15-20 miles away), and more...but not what the voters were clearly sending a message for.

So what they coted overwhelmingly for may not be built, and of COURSE they will still collect that tax for 20 years.

Posted by: Tim on August 25, 2004 8:42 AM

Texans voted these people into office based on their anti-tax, anti-government ideology, so why are we hearing complaints that Republicans are governing as, well, as Republicans. Toll roads seem to be completely consistent with standard Republican orthodoxy. These are the folks we elected, we get what we deserve.

Posted by: Dennis on August 26, 2004 3:05 PM