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.
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.
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."