Tuesday, July 20, 2004

TxDOT will toll for thee

Ask not for whom TxDOT will toll, it will toll for thee

July 18, 2004

Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2004

Last week, citizens in Austin and San Antonio told their local and state officials what they think about toll roads. And from all reports, most of the 500-plus who went to each meeting were opposed - in degrees varying from thoughtful to apoplectic - to forcing taxpayers to pay to drive on their state's highways.

Not that it mattered. Toll road projects will soon kick off in both areas, and if state leaders have their way, there will be many more great, 15 cents-per-mile highways.

Gone are the days when Texans bragged about having the nation's finest highway system - free, efficient and well maintained. In every urban area, highways are in gridlock and traffic worsens daily.

Texas spends about $3 billion a year on roads, but state officials say three times that amount is needed. But after a decade during which successive Legislatures balanced budgets by "holding the line," "cutting the fat" and refusing to acknowledge that Texas ' population is growing rapidly and prices are rising, Texas now ranks 47th in what it spends, per capita, on highways.

And considering Texas ' expansiveness, this ranking understates the situation. If you drive from Orangeto Los Angeles, for example, 52 percent of your trip will be on Texas highways. And if you drive from Brownsville to Bismarck, N.D., you will be in Texas 53 percent of the way.

But the notion of raising taxes - any taxes - is unthinkable to Texas ' current regime.

Not that they are inalterably opposed to increasing what they take from our pockets, mind you. Between 1992 and 2002, while they raised no taxes - and even cut some - Texas ' indebtedness grew from $8 billion (or $461 per capita) to $24 billion ($1,104 per capita).

And virtually every fee charged to regular Joes and Juanitas was increased. Now, they are working to create new fees, such as tolls, and they're even thinking about charging them on existing roads.

The San Antonio and Austin projects will almost double Texas ' existing toll roads, and together with other planned toll roads, they will be a prelude to Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor , a 4,000-mile network of 1,000-foot-wide corridors that will have 10-lane highways, railroad tracks and utility easements for gas, water, electricity and fiber-optic lines.

This massive 50-year undertaking is now estimated to cost $180 billion. Some money will come from state appropriations. But most will come from state revenue bonds and federal loans that will be repaid with easement and rail fees, but primarily from tolls charged on passenger vehicles.

Though the San Antonio and Austin projects will allow drivers who won't - or can't - pay to travel toll-free on access roads with traffic lights, there is no such provision in Perry's proposal.

One key sales pitch for both the planned toll roads and the ambitious Perry plan is that 80 percent of NAFTA truck traffic now travels over Texas highways, and it will double in the next decade.

That being the case - and considering that, of necessity, most NAFTA trucks will travel significant distances on Texas highways - you would think that some wizard in the Austin politburo would propose raising the tax on diesel.

But this simple idea, I suspect, would be dismissed out of hand, because it would be a tax increase.

And besides, there are some Texans who drive pricey Mercedes-Benzes that run on diesel. It wouldn't be fair to target them!

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail cguerra@express-news.net. His columns appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

San Antonio Express-News: www.mysanantonio.com