Friday, April 01, 2005

"This is a present nightmare, not a vision for the future."

OPINION: Transportation trauma

by David Hartman

The Lone Star Report
Volume 9, Issue 31
Copyright 2005

Talking the talk of talk of conservative state spending is not the same as walking the walk of limiting state spending to the growth of the state’s economy. That’s the reason for concern with Gov. Rick Perry ’s off-budget toll road financing plan, which threatens to usher in a new era of runaway state spending.

The “Trojan Horse” for off-budget expansion of highway spending started with SB 342 in 2001 and continued with HB 3588 in the 2003 legislative session.

The bills enable “regional mobility authorities” for off-budget financing and building regional toll roads ; “toll equity,” which leverages off-budget regional spending with state transportation funded grants; “toll conversion,” which allows the regional authorities to convert existing highways to toll roads; and “driver responsibility,” which substantially increases traffic fines in order to help finance roads and hospital trauma centers.

The goal of these bills is to launch the “Gosplan” -scale “Trans Texas” transportation corridors which would entail an unprecedented Texas venture into statist planning and infrastructure finance.

The legacy Texans can envision from the menu provided by SB 342 and HB 3588 has been unveiled already by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

Led by the City of Austin and Travis County, the Authority broadens the reach and grasp of an appointed transportation directorate similar in nature to Capital Metro – which has proposed augmenting the services of its fleet of empty buses by building a fleet of empty trains, rather than use its excessive funding for building sorely needed roads.

CTRMA proposes to join the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Authority (CAMPO) in pioneering new horizons for “public plunder” by levying tolls on the principal arteries of the Greater Austin Area without any obligation to widen or improve them. This is a present nightmare, not a vision for the future.

To put such deviant public policy in proper perspective and remediate its deficiencies, it is necessary to refer to the conservative principles of public finance. In general, elected public officials should never delegate to appointed officials the right to spend, tax, borrow, or otherwise fund their activities. Organizations like CTRMA and Capital Metro have public authority without direct accountability to the electorate, as their actions all too clearly demonstrate.

Also, the growth of public spending on transportation should be reconciled by state and local elected officials with other public demands in order to prevent public spending in total from growing at a rate exceeding growth of the state’s economy.

Previous generations did not leave their offspring a heavily indebted state, nor should we. As a general rule, current expenditures of government should be provided from current tax and fee revenues, not from toll bonds or other borrowing. And temporary transportation emergencies should be paid from State Highway Fund 0006 reserves to the extent possible. If required, borrowings should be repaid from future revenues on an expedited basis.

Whenever possible, public services should be paid from use taxes or fees levied upon the users of these services. Transportation facilities, such as highways, are ideally suited to such user financing. The motor vehicle registration should be an appropriately priced right-to-access on Texas highways for a vehicle of the given size and weight. Fuel taxes are a rational basis for a “per mile” tax.

These taxes should be adjusted annually for cost of living as HB 5 currently proposes, but also for changes in average fuel consumption.

Finally, taxes should be equitably distributed among citizens. It is not equitable that some citizens should have to pay tolls in order to drive to work, while other citizens drive to work toll-free, particularly when both citizens have already participated in paying for those roads. Free public roads have been an American tradition which has served the economy and the public well. Tolling roads is just one more evidence of excessive government spending desperately seeking funding.

As LSR noted in 2003, “tolls are taxes, and toll roads are deficit spending.” Nothing has changed, but instead has reinforced these observations.

The Legislature should rescind SB 342 and HB 3588 in their entirety.

© 2005 The Lone Star Report: