Friday, June 11, 2004

Travis County: Ground Zero in the Toll Road Wars

Travis County toll roads fight - the future for Texas?

by James A. Bernsen

June 11, 2004

The Lone Star Report
Volume 8, Issue 39
Copyright 2004

Texans have always been skeptical of toll roads. The mere idea of paying to drive somewhere strikes a harsh chord in a state with such a tradition of freedom.

But another Texas tradition, the pay-as-you-go road system built on motor fuels taxes, is also at stake.

A new concept of using debt for road construction is gaining traction as declining revenue for new highway construction is putting a pinch on the state, and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is urging that all new highways be considered for tolling.

It’s a statewide problem, but some of the first salvos are being fired in the Austin area. Here local officials and business leaders are wrangling over the needs created by growth and the headaches of toll roads.

“We have for a number of years been talking about the diminishing funds in state highway dollars,” said Gaby Garcia with TxDOT. “We don’t have enough to meet the needs. We talked about how the needs have outpaced our ability to meet those needs…And for some time we have been talking about leveraging those dollars, making those dollars go further. One way to do that is with tolling.”

With that in mind, TxDOT now asks locals to consider tolling any new freeway that is built. That doesn’t mean tolls will happen, just that they will be considered. But the department’s preference is clearly for tolls.

The reason is that the department isn’t getting the funding it used to receive. Transportation funding in Texas has always lagged at the federal level, and despite the state’s congressional delegation’s best efforts, Texas gets back less than 90 percent of what it sends up to D.C.

Another development that has really put the pinch on transportation funds is diversion of gas tax money to general revenue or other line items in the budget. When all is said and done, TxDOT only gets 59 cents out of every dollar of gas tax.

There’s an even glummer way to look at it. If all transportation-related taxes are included, only $2.8 billion of $6.9 billion - 37 percent — goes to transportation, according to a study by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram . Some of that money, of course, is earmarked for education, but other money the general fund,where it can be used for almost any budget item.

Even if gas tax revenue weren’t diverted, however, it’s a declining revenue source. As automakers move to more efficient engines and hybrid vehicles, not to mention decreased usage caused by high prices, gas tax revenues will shrink, even while the need is growing.

Not your grandmother’s toll roads

Toll roads have existed for some time in Texas. Dallas and Houston, in particular, built toll roads to decrease congestion, starting in the 1950s. Some highways, like I-30 in the Metroplex, started off as tollways and were later converted to non-tolled roads.

True toll roads, however, were rare. But with the decrease in gas tax revenues, the state began looking at other options. SB 370 in 1997 created the Texas Turnpike Authority, and four years later, SB 342 created Regional Mobility Authorities. In 2002, Gov. Rick Perry announced his Trans-Texas Corridor plan, which would rely entirely on toll roads.

The state also established the Texas Mobility Fund to aid in the funding process. By using toll roads, the state creates a tool to use to pay the debt service on bonds, which dramatically increases the speed of construction.

Finally, last session, the Legislature passed HB 3588 by Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock), which among other things gave toll road-creation authority to local agencies.

In Travis, Williamson, and Hays counties, that authority is in the hands of the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), which recently drew up a plan for meeting the area’s growth needs through a network heavily dependent on tolls, as urged by TxDOT.

“What we’re seeing is an ever-increasing need and a decreasing ability to maintain that need,” said Robert Daish , the TxDOT district engineer. Using toll roads doesn’t just speed the projects up, he adds, inasmuch as, without it, these projects would “go nowhere.”

TxDOT, he says, has limited resources. These go where the biggest bang for the buck can be realized. Tolls, he says, would give Austin just that.

CAMPO will vote on the idea in July, after a probably heated debate. The organization’s Transportation Policy Board, which will make the decision, includes eight Central Texas state representatives, two area state senators and numerous local officials. Many of them are opposed to the toll roads.

Even some people who might support some toll roads, such as the Texas 130 bypass around the city (which has been seen as a toll road since the beginning) have big doubts about the plan. While most people think of toll roads planned for the future, in Austin even existing roads being improved and new roads already paid for and currently under construction are being considered for toll roads.

Among these are portions of U.S. 183, Texas 71, Texas 360, and extensions of MOPAC north and south of its present boundaries.

Moreover, the roads planned to be tolled are not just the large bypasses and convenience highways of the bigger cities, but rather a “patchwork,” in the words of Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty .

Among the proposals is tolling a 0.8 mile stretch of MOPAC and tolling sections as small as an interchange. Daugherty said the message is that if tolls aren’t included on the existing roads, the new roads won’t get built.

“I am very supportive of building this road system,” Daugherty said. “My opposition is the way it is laid out and some of the things that we are being told that we have to do in order to garner the money from the highway commission in order to build it.”

Daugherty will have a chance to voice his opinions again - he’s a member of CAMPO.

State Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin) - also a CAMPO board member - said the plan basically holds existing projects hostage as part of the deal for a wider toll road plan. Speaking to News 8 Austin last month, Keel called the project unfair.

“There are dollars for all kinds of toll road projects that are being threatened to be in jeopardy,” he said, “if these constituents don’t pay twice for a project that’s already under construction, has already been paid for with local, state and federal dollars. The proposal is that they pay for it again, and that’s simply wrong, it’s bad government.”

Daish said the reason people would be paying twice for a road like MOPAC is not just for that road itself, but for others. If toll roads were limited to new roads, the state would not see any benefit from the increased revenue until those projects were completed. Putting current roads in a toll system, he said, would give the area an immediate boost, both in the immediate revenue and in bonding opportunities. And that would make realization of the overall plan possible in a few years, as opposed to decades.

Austin, he said, needs the work.

But skeptics feel the process is being run through too quickly, and in meetings in both North and South Austin, citizens have shown up by the hundreds to voice their concerns. Daugherty wants to look at other options. One that he points to is recapturing some of the sales tax revenue that goes to Capital Metro. That agency receives a full cent of sales tax - as much as the City of Austin gets. Metro is using the money to someday bring light rail to the city, but Daugherty wants the funds released now, so that the highway projects can be sped up — without such a dependence on tolls.

Toll roads also have their supporters, notably the Capitol Area Transportation Coalition and the Home Builder’s Association of Greater Austin, which passed a resolution June 8 supporting them.

The Lone Star Report: