August 21, 2006
Behind the toll road turmoil

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."

Well gosh, Mister Expert, maybe the public is aware of the situation and they just think that privatized toll roads is a dirt-stupid response to it. Maybe the public thinks that roads should be public goods. Maybe what they want is a political leader who can find a solution that allows for that.

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.

In other words, the Trans Texas Corridor is based on unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky projections. Hey, imagine what our public education system would be like if money were no object. Free laptops for every student, better pay for teachers, unlimited funding for the arts, science labs, vocational training, etc etc etc. I'd bet you could put a similar unmet-needs price tag for the next quarter century on that if we framed the discussion in those terms. What would the answer be if these guys had to prioritize and separate out the need-to-haves from the nice-to-haves?

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.

I've been making that exact argument for a long time now. To get back to the smug Robert Poole for a moment, maybe the public hates this idea because they realize just how expensive it will be for them.

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."

sigh This is a silver platter issue, and I fear it's being fumbled because no one (besides Kinky, God help me) wants to be honest about the gas tax. All I can say is "Argh!"

Link via South Texas Chisme.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 21, 2006 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

This topic is good for a chuckle....

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.

mumble, mumble, those Goddamn hybrids, lowering emissions, reducing dependence on foreign oil AND lower our tax revenue placing more of a burden on folks driving good old American Chevy Suburbans, Ford Expeditions and Hummers.

This is a silver platter issue, and I fear it's being fumbled because no one (besides Kinky, God help me) wants to be honest about the gas tax. All I can say is "Argh!"

That reminds me, just when is National Talk Like A Pirate Day again?

Posted by: Patrick on August 21, 2006 7:50 AM

Many of my conservative neighbors see the gas tax as the fairest form of taxation. "The more one uses the roads the more one pays." They also all hate toll roads. Your analysis certainly seems to show that raising the tax rate by 20 cents is a lot cheaper that paying tolls. Leadership!
Fight on!
Richard Morrison

Posted by: Richard Morrison on August 21, 2006 9:12 AM

Building a new highway somewhere else to relieve congestion is just about as effective as mowing my lawn to shorten my neighbors grass.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on August 21, 2006 1:28 PM

I work in the transportation industry, so I should remain as anonymous as possible.

TxDOT doesn't have the money right now to maintain current roads, let alone build new ones. I would posit that most of TxDOT's issues are the result of politics and outside corruption. TxDOT doubtless has internal troubles, but the sheer volume of incompetence and greed in the construction industry backed up by polticians dwarfs everything. Find the original plans for something small (say a traffic signal) and compare those to the finished product and you might see what I mean.

As it is, the big push right now in transportation is toll roads and by-the-mile road usages fees. Examine the latest finacials from HCTRA and you'll see why toll roads are popular--Harris County Toll roads netted over $100 million last year. Some states are also testing GPS-based systems to track road users' mileage on the state's higways. Hybrids cause the same wear on the road as a similarly sized car, but pay half the taxes.

Everyone seems to agree that there is a funding problem with highways. Today's fiscal "conservatives" advocate the cut-taxes-and-spend approach coupled with privitization (Hmm . . . who owns all that land that will be paved? The people?). The simple solution of raising taxes is anathema to politicians, but may be the best way. I would take the gasoline tax proposal one step further and convert it from a flat per gallon charge to a percentage ala sales taxes. Inflation is definitely not your friend when funding billion dollar projects.

Posted by: Anon on August 21, 2006 1:52 PM