Saturday, November 27, 2004

"If commissioners had to answer directly to the public, they'd be humming a different melody."

A call for electing toll road makers

Board and commission appointees are less accountable, critics say

November 26, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

The recall effort against three Austin City Council members, spurred by their support of toll roads, is based on the idea that if you don't like the decision, change the decision-makers.

Some toll road opponents who nonetheless oppose the recall argue that such an extreme step should be reserved for instances of political malfeasance or incompetence, not differences of opinion. As a consequence, an alternate approach to the toll road question has emerged: If you don't like the decision, change the way the decision-makers are chosen.

Colin Clark, spokesman for the Save Our Springs Alliance, had two such recommendations at a "summit" earlier this month of various groups opposed to the proliferation of toll roads in Texas.

Clark suggested that the five-member Texas Transportation Commission, the overseer of the Texas Department of Transportation, which, since its creation decades ago, has been peopled by gubernatorial appointees, should instead be made up of elected officials. Further, Clark said, the boards of regional mobility authorities, essentially adjuncts to the state Transportation Department, should have elected officials serving on them rather than appointees by the governor and county commissioners courts.

"When officials in important positions are elected, they are more accountable than when they are appointed," Clark said in an interview this week.

The state commissioners, all of them appointees of Republican Gov. Rick Perry, are tireless advocates for toll roads, a position mirroring that of the man who put them on the panel. The commissioners, though professing to have nothing to do with local transportation decisions, have used the considerable road-building funds at their disposal to make toll roads the new norm for building Texas highways.

While acknowledging that no one really likes to pay a toll, commissioners argue frequently that gasoline tax revenue, absent a highly unlikely rate increase by the Legislature, will inevitably fail to keep up with state highway needs. Tolls, they say, will get more roads built and get them in place years sooner.

Toll opponents listen to all that and reason that if commissioners had to answer directly to the public, they'd be humming a different melody.

This is more than mere gum-flapping.

State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, chairman of the state House Transportation Committee, has been hearing rumbles about legislation along this line, particularly involving regional mobility authorities, and fully expects to be handling such bills in the session next year. But Krusee said both ideas, despite the furor over toll roads, are flawed.

Only two state commissions are elected, the anachronistically named Texas Railroad Commission, whose three members mostly regulate the oil and gas business, and the 15-member State Board of Education.

Krusee said doing the same with transportation would result in all the positions being filled by Dallas or Houston residents, where the votes are. Prospective commissioners would tend to be ambitious politicians looking to use the board as an entry-level statewide position, the pattern with the Railroad Commission over the years, rather than becoming dedicated transportation wonks. And, he says, the money for a statewide race would come from the most interested constituency: road construction and engineering companies.

It'll never happen, he says.

"You go to House members and say, 'Do you want to elect them?' and everyone who's not from Houston or Dallas is going to say no," Krusee said.

SOS spokesman Clark's response: elect them from geographic districts, like state school board members.

As for regional mobility authorities, Krusee and members of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board say the current setup combines autonomy and accountability.

"The RMA board is appointed so that there can be some assurance that there are business people on it, as opposed to the more random selection of local elections where you don't always end up with a critical mass of business professional types," says authority board member Lowell Lebermann, chairman of Centex Beverage Inc. and a former Austin City Council member.

The mobility authority, created two years ago, has seven members on its board: three appointed by Travis County commissioners, three named by Williamson County commissioners and one chosen by Perry. Aside from spending its time up to now creating bylaws and policies and hiring an executive director, the board has moved toward construction of the U.S. 183-A toll road to Leander.

It probably will issue about $200 million in debt for that road early next year and would operate some of the tollways in a controversial plan approved this summer. Over the years, the board will set toll rates and enforcement policies for those roads, among other duties. Officials argue that too much political influence, such as would occur with elections or appointments to the board of elected officials (the model created by the Legislature in 1997 for the Capital Metro board) could even drive tolls up by increasing risk in investors' eyes and, thus, interest rates for borrowing.

Of course, the local board that made the key decision on tolls this year, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, has 21 elected officials among its 23 members, including Krusee, and that didn't stop a comfortable majority of them from deciding, against overwhelming objections from the public, that toll roads were the way to go.

"There's certainly no confusion about whom to hold responsible for tolling decisions," Krusee said. "People understand it's the members of (CAMPO), and they know exactly who's on there."; 445-3698

© 2006 Austin American-Statesman:


Friday, November 26, 2004

UK looks at alternatives to building a way out of congestion

Creative ways to beat congestion

November 26, 2004

BBC (United Kingdom)
Copyright 2004

Congestion on England's trunk roads and motorways could be cut with a little creative thinking, according to a new report. How?

Drivers brace yourselves: congestion on England's major roads is increasing while plans for tackling the problem remain up in the air.

As government strategists return to the drawing board for the third time in four years, seeking to revise targets for cutting congestion, measures to cut jams have suffered, according to a new report.

Traditionally, governments have sought to build their way out of the problem - expanding roads to cope with the rise in cars. But a new report, drawn up by the National Audit Office, has highlighted a number of simple, but more creative alternatives.


A fancy name for reversing the flow of traffic in one or more lanes during peak periods. Signals above the carriageway indicate which lanes are in use and the direction of traffic in those lanes. For example, a four-lane carriage way - two lanes in each direction - could be altered to allow three lanes in one direction, with just one going the other way.

Introduced in the 1970s, the system is well used in Holland and Germany as well as the US, Canada and Australia. So far, it is only found on a handful of trunk roads in England. Officials claim it is most effective on busy urban roads, to cope with morning and evening rush hours, but there are safety worries about fast traffic running in opposite directions without barriers to divide it.


Speed limits are adjusted depending on traffic volumes and weather in order to smooth flow, cut accidents and so reduce congestion. Traffic flow is monitored by electronic devices buried in the road and limits are signalled by displays on overhead gantries. It works by reducing heavy braking, stopping cars bunching together and so forming jams.

Compulsory variable speed limits currently operate on 30km of the western section of the M25 - London's orbital motorway - while advisory limits are found on 30% of the wider motorway network.

Results from the M25 have been positive, reporting a cut in serious accidents of 10-20%, but England still lags behind other European countries. Half the motorway network in Holland uses variable speed limits.


Currently being trialled in the Netherlands and Germany, this measure aims to reduce congestion during peak periods by increasing the number of lanes. Lights, similar to cats eyes, are set into the road and can be turned on or off to mark out lanes. Thus three normal lanes could be turned into four narrower lanes at the flick of a switch.


Although bus lanes are a common sight on Britain's urban roads, they are rare on motorways. The M4 bus lane, which opened in 1999 and runs close to Heathrow airport, did not go down well with motorists although studies later showed it made car journeys slightly quicker during peak times. Off-peak journey times increased slightly, and there was a 20% cut in accidents.

Another sort of dedicated lane, pioneered in the United States, is the HOV - high occupancy vehicle - lane, in which only cars with two or more people can travel. The idea is to reduce congestion with commuter car sharing and, in places such as Washington DC, it's taken off so well that commuters line up to hitch rides with lone drivers, in a practice known as "slugging".

In the Netherlands HGVs can't overtake on the vast majority of the motorway network, in effect making the inside lane a dedicated lorry lane.


Again, common in the US, ramp metering involves traffic lights on slip roads that lead on to motorways. By controlling the rate cars joins a carriageway, traffic surges can be ironed out, cutting congestion and accidents. It was introduced on parts of the M6 almost 20 years ago and cut journey times by up to 20 minutes.

However, the technique was not rolled out. Officials said the junctions in question were unique and ramp metering would not be as effective at other junctions. There have also been trials on the M27 and M3.


In effect widening the road by opening up the hard shoulder to normal traffic. The Dutch and Germans have used this technique since the 1990s but in England it has been resisted by the emergency services which have concerns about how they would reach an accident site.

Where this works on the continent, speed limits are cut and frequent refuge areas are provided for motorists in trouble. Research has found that accident rates have fallen where this scheme is applied and the Highways Agency has recently embarked on a trial.

© 2004 BBC:


Monday, November 22, 2004

"An idea that only a policy wonk could love."

Mileage Tax Idea Rife With Potholes


By Sharon Bernstein
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2008

Tax motorists based on the number of miles they drive?

The concept is gaining currency among the think-outside-the-box crowd as a way to bolster sagging transportation coffers while eliminating the politically unpopular tax on gasoline. But it may be an idea that only a policy wonk could love.

“It’s absolutely horrible,” said Nancy Mooslin, an artist who divides her time – and drives – between downtown Los Angeles and Newport Beach.

“It’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard,” said Judy Heiser, who manages a gas station in North Hollywood.

Last week, talk show tongues wagged and e-mail lists buzzed with the news that Joan Borucki, appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to head the Department of Motor Vehicles, wants the state to consider tracking how far motorists drive, and tax them accordingly.

She’s not the only advocate. Among transportation planners, similar proposals abound: Oregon is developing a pilot program to put satellite tracking devices in cars to monitor mileage and tax motorists on it; Germany is preparing to do the same with trucks that use its autobahn routes.

At the behest of Congress, the U.S. Transportation Research Board recently set up a committee to look at ways to raise money for roads without a gasoline tax. Committee members met last week to discuss a per-mile road user fee for the United States.

“It’s not an idea to be taken lightly,” said Martin Wachs, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley. “It’s revolutionary.”

He said that 88 mileage-tax experiments were being conducted worldwide.

Schwarzenegger administration officials are quick to point out that there is no active proposal to switch to such a system. Even if the idea got beyond the talking stage, it would face tremendous hurdles in the Legislature, where lawmakers are both hesitant to impose new taxes and keenly aware of privacy issues.

In response to a question at a recent news conference, Schwarzenegger said he didn’t know enough about the mileage fee to comment.

Borucki also would not comment for this article. But earlier this year, as chairwoman of the transportation section for the California Performance Review, the state governmental reform study, she urged the state to develop a pilot program for taxing motorists based on the number of miles they drive. She also discussed the idea at a hearing in August.

On its face, the tax seems simple: If the government tracks where people go, it can charge them for their use of the roads, and spend the money to build and repair streets and highways. Some supporters even envision a time when global positioning systems would be used to manage traffic, signaling to a state databank when a motorist was driving at rush hour and charging that person more than drivers who travel during off-peak hours.

It would work by linking up the tracking device with the car’s odometer. When a driver went to fill up the tank, the fees would be added to the price of gas.

Supporters, whose ranks include academics, urban planners and many transportation leaders, say that the tax on gasoline has not kept up with inflation. The tax has been stuck at 18 cents per gallon in California since 1994, and the additional federal tax is also about 18 cents. And as cars and trucks become more fuel efficient, it could get more difficult to collect enough funds to keep up with road construction costs.

The mileage tax would be more of a direct-user fee, said Elizabeth Deakin, professor and director of the University of California Transportation Center, a statewide program. People who drive more would be taxed more, she said.

But if a sampling of motorists interviewed for this article are any indication, the idea gives the average person the creeps.

“It’s a Big Brother thing,” said Scott McNatt, 46. “Everybody is going to have a monitor in their car.”

At the Van Nuys office of the Automobile Club of Southern California, where McNatt sat among about a dozen people waiting to renew vehicle registrations or purchase car insurance, drivers also worried about the logistics of a new system.

Tulio Ortiz Sr., 64, predicted that a new system would be difficult to set up and monitor.

“It would be a nightmare just to keep track of the user fee,” he said. Car owners would dismantle the equipment or register their cars out of state, he said.

Georgine Berrian, a nurse who commutes 22 miles each way from her home in Sylmar to her job at Kaiser Permanente’s hospital on Sunset Boulevard, said she was concerned that such a system would penalize people who live far from their jobs.

“Some people have to move farther out to be able to afford property,” Berrian said. “We have girls who commute from Rancho Cucamonga.”

Others feared that a mileage tax would eliminate incentives for motorists to buy fuel-efficient cars by charging the driver of a hybrid car the same rate as the owner of a Hummer.

Wachs of Berkeley said the system could be adjusted to reward drivers of fuel-efficient cars simply by charging them less per mile.

But the biggest concerns involved privacy.

“People are naturally wary of these kinds of schemes,” said Michael Curry, a UCLA geography professor who has studied the privacy implications of tracking devices. “You have to wonder how these data could be used for other purposes.”

Curry ticked off a list of potential abuses: in lawsuits and criminal cases, in custody disputes, in divorce proceedings and even in tracking political dissidents.

Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Rhode Island-based Privacy Journal, said it’s not uncommon for personal information gathered for one purpose to be used for another. Already, information from electronic toll tags are used by police in some states to track drivers who are suspected in criminal cases, he said.

Supporters say that the system could be designed to protect privacy while addressing other issues. The voluntary Oregon pilot program, expected to start in late 2005, would not track the time of day or specific roads traveled, but would note when a driver left the state. The motorist would not be taxed for miles outside of Oregon.

The car would transmit data via limited short-range radio and the fee would be collected at the gas pump, said James Whitty, who is spearheading the program for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

“When people take the time to understand the system, they realize there really aren’t privacy concerns,” Whitty said. “It isn’t much different from the electronic toll systems that are used in many places around the country.”

The gasoline tax, in place for more than 80 years in California, has served as a rough barometer of how much any given motorist uses the roads, said Brian Taylor, director of the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies.

“The gas tax has a lot of advantages,” he said. “It’s extremely cheap to collect from wholesale distributors. Also, it encourages people to purchase and use more fuel-efficient vehicles.”

But the tax has become politicized, and legislators have been unwilling to increase the levy, he said.

Between inflation and the prevalence of fuel-efficient cars, income from the gas tax buys a third of the road improvements that it would have purchased in the 1960s, Taylor said.

As a result, policymakers continue to look at replacing the gas tax with a mileage tax, while trying to work out its numerous kinks, he said.

Winning approval for such a proposal may be decades off in the United States, several experts said.

“There’s a long, long way from an academic theory to public acceptance,” said Dan Beal, policy analyst for the Auto Club, which has not taken a position on the mileage tax. “There are a lot of obstacles to overcome.”

Times researcher Lynn Marshall in Seattle contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Los Angeles Times:

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Sunday, November 21, 2004

Costello: "This whole thing is a scam."

Resident challenges toll plan

Austin case is part of state debate over funding new road projects


Associated Press
Copyright 2004

AUSTIN - Sal Costello plans his appointments to avoid rush-hour traffic leading from his Circle C neighborhood south of Austin into downtown.

The marketing consultant would rather start and finish his days late than sit with other cars backed up at red lights and choke on exhaust fumes during peak traffic times.

That's why he and thousands of others in his neighborhood anxiously awaited completion of a new bridge that would avoid the lights and keep traffic moving. Then came the stunning announcement: To use the bridge, drivers would have to pay a toll as high as 70 cents.

"Uh, no," Costello said. "That bridge has been promised for many, many years as a freeway. We've already paid for it."

The bridge turned into the flash point of a contentious debate over the state's ambitious new plan to use tollways and bonds to help pay for new transportation projects in Texas .

The Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday adopted the 2005 Statewide Mobility Program, with about $15.4 billion going to the state's eight largest metropolitan areas over the next decade.

"This whole thing is a scam," said Costello, whose organized opposition helped sink plans to make the bridge near his house a tollway. "It stinks and it reeks and people know it."

State leaders say toll roads can keep traffic moving.

"Traffic congestion in Texas cities is getting so bad it's affecting their ability to attract jobs and deteriorating the quality of life," said state Rep. Mike Krusee, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Krusee sponsored the law in 2003 that opened the door for the tollway road expansion.

Supporters say toll roads speed up road building because they require less state and federal money. And, given political reluctance to raise gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees, Texas has few other options.

"It's like you're building an economic engine," said Krusee, R-Round Rock. "By providing the seed money to get roads started, cities in Texas are going to have more options than any in the United States."

Critics such as Costello say they support toll roads if they are planned and paid for with tax dollars. Drivers should also have viable options to avoid toll roads, they say.

But the Austin plan would place tolls on most of the highways running through the city, except for Interstate 35. It would put collection booths on some roads Costello says were already paid for with tax money.

"That's a double tax," Costello said. "In the past, when they did toll roads they were whole new roads, whole new options that complemented the daily highways. ... They have hijacked all the highways."

About 600 people packed a July public hearing but failed to stop the Austin toll plan.

Angered by the vote of approval, Costello started a recall petition drive against Austin Mayor Will Wynn and the City Council members who supported the toll road plan. He said he has more than 21,000 of the 40,000 signatures he needs.

Toll roads are a central part of Republican Gov. Rick Perry's $175 billion Trans -Texas Corridor transportation initiative that he proposed in 2002.

A spokesman has said that, although Perry does not support tolls on existing roads, he believes the issue should be left to local governments.

The Associated Press: