Saturday, December 04, 2004

Will Texans Pay-as-they-drive?

Pay-as-you-drive may be the key to Texas' future

December 4, 2004

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2004

If more attention isn't paid to the nation's aging transportation system, the United States will have a challenge in keeping pace with global economy, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said Thursday.

"The future of this nation is transportation," said U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who spoke at a North Texas transportation conference sponsored by a House colleague, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound. "If we don't do anything at all, I guarantee you're going to suffer."

Much of the morning's discussion centered not on what projects to build but how to pay for them.

What that means for motorists is the potential for even more toll roads or toll lanes. In Texas, planning for more toll roads already is occurring. State leaders have pushed for new toll roads and the creation of the Trans-Texas Corridor, a mixture of new rail lines, truck toll lanes and toll roads that span the state. And in North Texas, planned highways including State Highway 121 in Denton County and State Highway 161 in Grand Prairie have been converted to toll roads before or during their construction.

"Texas has done the best job of all 50 states" in finding ways to raise money, Mr. Young told the group of about 100 transportation officials.

What's next for Texas and the nation?

Try pay-by-the-mile motorist fees.

Mr. Young said he is interested in the concept of charging motorists for every mile driven, possibly with the help of electronic odometers. Locally, transportation experts also have predicted that motorists would eventually have to pay by the mile.

"There is a ticking time bomb in regards to out-year transportation needs," said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, who has said pay-by-the-mile fees could become reality.

The region has $31 billion in unbudgeted highway projects in the next 20 years, and that money must be found from new sources, Mr. Morris said.

While spelling out the challenges, Mr. Young also brought a measure of good news to Texas leaders. Congress and the White House are still battling over a transportation bill, but consensus is growing for a $299 billion measure. That would bring hundreds of millions or even billions in new transportation dollars to Texas over a six-year period.

In addition, the bill that Mr. Young hopes to send to the White House would guarantee that all states receive 95 percent of the gas taxes they send to the federal government. Texas currently gets 86 to 88 percent.

The big picture, Mr. Young said, is that the country has, for about 40 years, failed to spend enough on transportation. That inattention is catching up with us, and the highway trust fund could go broke within a decade, the Alaska congressman said.

Until now, regions and states have been told to find their own ways to fix transportation problems, the congressman said. His goal: get national leaders focused on transportation again for the first time since construction of the interstate highway system began in the mid-1950s.

"We ought to address the issue of raising more dollars," said Mr. Young, who unsuccessfully fought to raise the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax. "What a terrible thing to leave behind if we don't.

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