Friday, September 03, 2004

"They’re turning in their graves"

Opinion: Toll roads in Texas? They’re turning in their graves

September 3, 2004

by William Murchison

The Lone Star Report
Volume 9, Issue 5
Copyright 2004

Let me begin, in approved Media Age fashion, with “me.” Specifically, with my initial exposure, as a 13-year-old, to toll roads. The exposure – which took place, I believe, on a vacation jaunt to Maryland and Delaware – set me on course for a career spent in the perpetual indignation mode of the political commentator. Did I like toll roads? Not a bit. We didn’t have such in Texas: government people telling us we had to pay to drive our cars. Deprivation of rights! Remember the Alamo! And on from there....

The present sentiments of today’s anti-toll-road warriors I can appreciate, therefore: at least emotionally and historically. Our peerless highway system was founded on gasoline taxes, and we liked it that way. A lot of Old Texas, I suspect, survives in the New Texas. Dad blast it, we’re still paying our gasoline taxes around here. Ain’t that enough?

Evidently it ain’t, or the anti-toll-road warriors wouldn’t be on the war path against plans for uncorking our congested highways through – in part – construction of new toll roads. And – herewith the truly sensitive part – the conversion of existing, or already planned, stretches to tolls.

Down in Austin, whose traffic horrors are best appreciated by those of us who attended UT 40 or 50 years ago, a city councilman is backtracking on his support for the tolling of three out of seven highway projects. Up in North Texas, my own region, an organization calling itself is scattering tacks in the pathway of plans for tolls along Highway 121– an enterprise likened by its founder to “selling your soul to the devil.”

And – por supuesto –Carole Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn —has heaved herself into the middle of the gathering fray. The acute nostrils of Ms. Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn accurately scent the odor of Gov. Rick Perry, whose Trans Texas Corridor plan is the matrix from which arise these plans for reverse tolling. The corridor plan compasses, as well, a large number of new highways financed by tolls. Anyway the comptroller of public accounts is incensed that “this governor” should be “taking existing highway projects that are on the verge of completion and turning them into toll roads at the last minute.” (Point of clarification: It’s local, not state officials, who will be doing that if it gets done at all.)

Ms. KMRS likely underestimates the appeal of toll roads, even to Texans who see in them the possibility of disentangling their larger cities from befouling traffic. The impeccably conservative Heritage Foundation calls toll roads “a way to measure demand for new highway investment. If tolls are set flexibly, they indicate motorists’ willingness to pay for the cost of service, and valuable tolls can be used to optimize traffic flow and prevent breakdowns into inefficient stop-and-go driving.” Taxes, Heritage says, “have a doubtful future as the principal source of funding for roads.”

Of course there are other ways to think about the matter, as James Bernsen ably points out elsewhere in this issue of LSR . He notes that Texas doesn’t yet – our senators are working on it – get its fair share of giveback in federal gasoline taxes. And he notes, with comparable justification, that a hunk of state gasoline tax revenues goes to non-highway purposes, including public schools. If we ended non-public school diversions, and if we recovered (as per Sen. John Cornyn’s design) just 95 percent of the money Texas sends to Washington in gasoline taxes, we’d gain some $3.5 billion in money available for highway building. And if (as the old hobo might point out wryly) we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs – if we had some eggs. You’d think all the same the taxpayers could keep for road purposes more of what they pay at the pump – a worthy question not just for U.S. senators but also for legislators.

How the toll flap ultimately will be resolved is obviously a matter for conjecture. Less conjectural is the need not just for denunciations of reverse-tolling an existing road but for constructive solutions to the overall problem – a problem with highly negative implications for continued economic growth hereabouts.

Austin Mayor Will Wynn , concerning his councilman’s retreat on the reverse-tolling of area highways, puts it pithily enough: “What’s the alternative revenue plan?” Similarly, where’s the Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn plan?

Some of us old coots might lean toward inducing Southern Pacific, the Katy, and the Burlington Rock Island railroads to return to the business of hauling long-distance passengers. The passing of the the pasenger train, in the ‘50s and ‘60s of the last century, remains a matter of more-than-nostalgic regret, given the comparative efficiency of that mode of travel. Or we could lay on more airports and airplanes.

The challenge of being Texan in this new century, which knows not J. S. Cullinan or Col. Charles Goodnight , architects of the old, freer order, is that of responding to extraordinary change without turning Texas into New Jersey. Plenty of turnpikes up there in New Jersey. And plenty of taxes and regulation, too. With our traditions and advantages, we can do this thing better. And we had better.

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