This is one of the better articles I've seen lately about the state's toll road debate, and one of the few I've seen in a major metro daily regarding the Trans Texas Corridor hearings that have been taking place. I've got a few points to highlight, starting with a comment from a think tanker that just rubs me the wrong way.
"That's why you don't see a lot of big changes in public policy, because they are risky," said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the California-based Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. "It may be that the general public isn't yet persuaded that this is a crisis. In day-to-day, average-person political terms, traffic congestion may not be bad enough yet."
On the subject of how the Trans Texas Corridor came to be:
The state's population has increased more than 20 percent since 1990 and annual miles traveled on the state's roads have gone up about 50 percent. Meanwhile, the Texas highway system, with increasing maintenance costs and more expensive urban construction needs, grew only 4 percent during that decade and a half.
The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from those numbers, one borne out by most people's experience behind the wheel, is that Texas roads are more congested than they were 15 years ago.
The state Transportation Department's budget, meanwhile, has tripled since 1990, including an 80 percent jump from the budget Perry inherited from George W. Bush to this year's $7.7 billion spending plan.
Perry and his people say that's still not nearly enough to deal with the state's transportation needs now or, especially, in the future. Using figures gleaned by asking local transportation planners what they would build if money were no object, they say the state will have $86 billion in unmet transportation needs over the next 25 years.
They say the only way to close that gap, to extinguish the blaze, as it were, is to put tolls on every road you can and recruit private capital to build as many new toll roads as possible. Increasing the state gasoline tax, frozen at 20 cents a gallon since 1991, is not an option, Perry and his fellow GOP legislative leaders say, particularly with unleaded gas selling for close to $3 a gallon. But that was already his position when gas was selling for well under $2 a gallon.
Perry's November challengers Carole Keeton Strayhorn, an independent, and Chris Bell, a Democrat, agree with him on that point, as does Libertarian James Werner. Only independent candidate Kinky Friedman says he would be open to increasing the tax.
"Frankly, I think Texans will go for raising it a few cents rather than having toll roads," Friedman said.
A few cents, in Perry's view, would be irrelevant. Each penny raises about $100 million in a year, or enough for one fair-sized freeway interchange with flyover bridges. So a 20-cent increase, which would give Texas the highest gas tax of any state, would bring in an extra $2 billion a year. Perry says that wouldn't be nearly enough to return Texas' transportation system to its former lofty status among states, particularly as hybrid vehicles and other improvements from Detroit increase gas efficiency and cause gas tax revenue to sag.
A 20-cents-a-gallon increase in the tax would cost the average driver about $100 a year. That's much less than a driver regularly commuting on a toll road would pay. The U.S. 183-A tollway due to open next year will cost $2 for one trip through, or about $1,000 a year for a five-day-a-week commuter.
Look, why can't we have a discussion about what that extra $2 billion a year would mean for current road construction and planning? While we're at it, let's discuss how much TxDOT has wasted on certain projects through bad planning, inefficiency, or just poor design. And hey, why not go whole hog and discuss some ways that we can encourage behavior and lifestyles that don't depend on long commutes to work every day. Maybe that $2 billion a year will go farther than we think.
Oh, and we'd be getting an extra half billion or so in education funding with a gas tax increase, too. Just FYI.
Strayhorn's and Bell's combination of stances - against toll roads but also against raising the gasoline tax - is the crux of Perry's electoral pitch against them.
"If someone has a better idea . . . please lay out that plan," Perry said. "None of them do. My point is, if you're going to be afraid to lay out plans to take the state forward, you might choose a different line of work."
Link via South Texas Chisme.Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 21, 2006 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack