Saturday, August 13, 2005

Transportation industry ponders the future Toll Road State

Transportation officials say U.S. is getting into a jam over traffic

Patrick Driscoll, Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News

IRVING — The nation's roads are on a crash course with disaster and decision-makers are running scared, government and industry officials said this week at the Texas Transportation Summit.

The drastic changes needed over the next couple of decades to keep up with growing traffic are both cool and scary.

"We're going to need to make some fundamental decisions in this country about where we're going to go," said Ed Mortimer, director of transportation infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

More than 1,100 people from five countries and 34 states came to the four-day summit, which ended Friday, to celebrate the 1956 law that funded the 43,000-mile interstate system and to sketch a vision for the next 50 years.

But the vision is foggy, and there will be potholes on the way.

First up is the six-year, $284 billion transportation bill signed Wednesday by President Bush.

The new law gets good marks for such things as streamlining construction and environmental work and, some summit participants said, for allowing interstates to be tolled when there's new construction.

But it falls woefully short, most agreed.

"It's really a Band-Aid," Mortimer said.

Another $20 billion a year is needed just to maintain the system, he said.

Making matters worse, the nation's roadways have been deteriorating for years and are now in poor condition, said Patrick Natale, director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

"Would you do the same thing for your house?" he asked a luncheon crowd Friday. "Would you let it deteriorate until it fell down?"

Yet that's what America is doing, said Ed Regan of Wilbur Smith Associates. If you think traffic congestion and pocked streets are bad now, just wait.

"The worst is yet to come," he said as he struggled to explain how dire the situation is. "Fear or terror might be words that would work appropriately."

Federal, state and local officials need $3.4 trillion to keep up with highway and transit needs over the next 10 years but will fall $1 trillion short, according to a recent study commissioned by the National Chamber Foundation.

How can this be? Mostly because federal and state gas taxes, the main sources of transportation funds, are drying up, officials say.

Most politicians aren't inclined to increase gas taxes, even to keep up with inflation. Also, cars today get twice as much mileage from a gallon of gas as the vehicles of 20 years ago and that likely will double again within 15 years.

In addition, fuel cells eventually will become mainstream and, together with the fuel efficiency of hybrid cars, the gas tax will be as good as dead.

"Somebody's got to pay for it," said Ken Philmus of DMJM+Harris. "There's no such thing as a free road."

This is where toll roads and bonds, the most promising and talked about solutions among transportation officials, come in.

For this, the eyes of the nation are on Texas, where laws in recent years have let private companies bring their financial might and innovative approaches to the plate. Construction of the first toll lanes in San Antonio, 47 miles on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 on the North Side, will begin early next year.

"Texas is absolutely leading the way here," Regan said.

But toll roads aren't a perfect solution.

Several officials at the summit said surveys show drivers will accept toll roads, but there are elected leaders at local levels who say they feel the heat and hear the cries about double taxation.

"Toll roads should pay for themselves," said Grady Smithey, a city councilman in Duncanville, south of Dallas. "Any toll road of the future should adhere to this principle."

Also, tolling of new highways across America would raise only $12 billion through 2015, according to the National Chamber Foundation. Including bond financing and other changes, just a fourth of the needs would be met.

Something more radical is needed, officials say.

The new federal transportation law calls for setting up a commission to search for long-range solutions. A second part to the National Chamber Foundation study, due out in November, will do the same.

But Regan, Mortimer and others say they know where this is headed: The gas tax will be replaced by a mileage-based charge.

Within 20 years, satellites and computers might be tracking and billing every movement of every car, which would be equipped with global positioning systems. Testing already is under way in Oregon, Seattle and Germany.

"This is a very serious consideration in Washington," Regan said.

But the fallout could be the threat to privacy, he said. The trick is designing an anonymous system that still has pinpoint accuracy, which might sound like nonsense to many motorists.

Is it possible?

"Probably," Regan said.

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