March 05, 2009
Morrison speaks on the Grand Parkway

Fort Bend County Commissioner Richard Morrison writes about the recently-greenlighted Grand Parkway Segment E and the possibility that stimulus funds could be used to fund what will become a toll road.

If Segment E is funded from the stimulus money and finally constructed, exorbitant tolls from this segment will be used to finance and construct the remaining segments in Liberty, Montgomery, Brazoria, Chambers, and Galveston Counties. That means the citizens of Fort Bend County and North-west Harris County will be paying for those segments even though they never drive on them. From a mobility standpoint many of these remaining segments are useless. Miles and miles of the remaining pieces will cross open prairie where no one lives, will have little or no effect on traffic and are not needed. When our transportation dollars from Washington D.C. are desperately needed to get people to and from our population centers, it only seems reasonable that the federal stimulus money should be spent on actual mobility projects.

There's more, so check it out. On a related note, the Observer has a report from that rally at the Capitol that urged TxDOT to slow down and get more public input on how and where it should be allocating those funds. And quit pissing everybody off while they're at it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 05, 2009 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Thanks for the link to Mr. Morrison's blog. Not sure if his blog allowed me to post the following comments but you might find them contrasting.

Good to read your comments Mr. Morrison, interesting points of view.

To add to the exchange of thoughts...

- Ideal situation for a toll road it is for it to pay its own way. Normally roadway design is a 20-year cycle meaning the road has to be reconstructed every 20 years. To my understanding agencies like HCTRA do not allocate toll revenue to each toll road but it is all mixed into one pot. Thus while one toll road may generate revenue another may not. Better way to manage toll road would be to keep their costs & revenues separated. Studies and other assumptions my be wrong but revenues and costs will not.

- Allowing the supply demand to work (market forces) is a great way to develop toll roads.

- Toll road authorities could use many types of leverages to build toll roads. Bottom line is whether drivers will pay for the tolls and whether the tolls will be sufficient to make the system sustainable. Note that the cost of roads does not end at the end of construction but continues during its relatively short life cycle till it needs to be reconstructed. There is no magic on this one and no study that can avoid reality.

- To stimulate the Texas economy is mentioned. Not sure if we all understand current economy well. Printing money in a country that is in deficit means inflation. While we benefit from some funding inflation will affect 100% of us by decreasing the value of our earned dollars. If not mistaken stimulus funds are to be used for "shovel ready" projects. This means construction not engineering. While many well paid jobs are being lost, people with degrees, construction will not benefit these above normal wage earners. 90% Of roadway projects goes to construction. I would think construction work is mostly low skilled labor.

- Economically distressed areas? I do wonder where are these areas? Maybe Galveston? Else under current economic conditions the entire country maybe be economically distressed.

- Double taxation has been mentioned many times. Not sure if this is true. When I pay taxes I don't have a choice but I do have a choice on whether I want to use a toll road or not. My guess that many people who use toll roads choose to pay the toll. If they don't then the economic model of toll roads would fail.

- As county commissioner you probably are very familiar with HGAC and its TPC. If not mistaken the TPC is a regional representative body. The city of Houston is represented by two elected officials and the director of public works. Over many years I learned that if one member of the TPC is very concerned or opposed to a project the others listen and work things to every person's delight. I don't think decisions occur in a vacuum nevertheless people think this is the case.

- As a civil engineer I would suggest to all that there isn't such a thing as a "free road." A road requires funds to build it, funds to operate and maintain it, and at the end of its life cycle (normally 20 years) it needs reconstruction. It is constantly costing funds.

- Having studied and written papers about transportation planning and roadway construction I am also of the opinion that the best way to manage traffic and finance our transportation infrastructure is through tolls. It is not about whether we should or not have tolls but how much.

- Regarding the Grand Parkway. I think when it was created it was a visionary project but over time it has evolved into a plain highway. To my understanding the original Grand Parkway was to be a ring road connecting regional parks, large parks. It even had a passenger train element. Thus the original Grand Parkway would take people from one green park to another and people would have had the choice between using a car or maybe light rail. It was truly a visionary project. We just failed to follow through with its original intent. In this regard I agree, our current vision is very shortsighted.

- I have doubts on whether a toll road system could survive by using revenues from some segments to finance others. It has to have economic viability else the cost of borrowing funds i.e. bond rating would increase. Also in today's economy I would be very careful in investing in toll roads since many people are losing their jobs - no jobs no toll revenues. We will never see "exorbitant tolls" since tolls are market driven.

- The beauty of toll roads is what you mention, if useless then there is no revenue. If no revenue it is financially bankrupt. I just hope the system has checks and balances because if the toll roads fail financially I would like the responsible parties to be fired.

- "...actual mobility projects"? Not sure what this means.

- There are federal funds and state funds, both are taxes paid at the pump. Is the gasoline tax the most fair tax? You state " (legislature) must also insure that all of the tax revenue raised from gasoline taxes will be spent on roads." Note that 27% of the federal gasoline tax is used for public transit projects. There isn't a single transit project in the country that is not subsidized by gasoline tax dollars. Most people probably don't realize that it is gasoline taxes that is paying for much of mass transit like light rail. So I agree with you, taxes from gasoline should go to roadways only else we are double taxing drivers to finance mass transit.

- By the way, gasoline indexing is often talked about but for decades the state and federal government have avoided the topic of additional taxes for transportation infrastructure.

I don't know enough on the benefits of the Grand Parkway thus cannot argue its legitimacy. However, it is sad that a visionary project has evolved into another highway project. Two suggestions. One, I would suggest for this toll road not to have service or frontage roads, thus avoid the massive construction that goes on along highway corridors. And two, it must be tolled, thus depends on market forces vs. subsidies.

Posted by: Gonzalo Camacho on March 6, 2009 6:05 AM
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