Friday, September 30, 2005

Central Texans don’t like toll roads.

Toll survey finds opposition, officials seek to make their case


by James A. Bernsen
Volume 10, Issue 8
The Lone Star Report

Central Texans don’t like toll roads. That’s what a new survey conducted by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority – the agency pushing the roads – has learned. In fact, 60 percent of Central Texans oppose adding new tolling lanes. A further 78 percent oppose tolling existing lanes.

And toll opponents are seizing on the results to make their case. Even more galling to them is the fact that the $56,000 study is part of a taxpayer-funded public relations effort to promote something opponents they say the majority of taxpayers oppose.

The authority conducted the survey in August through an Oklahoma-based firm, asking numerous questions pertaining to traffic congestion in the Austin area. Although the survey is characterized by toll opponents as a push poll, based on a review by LSR , the questions asked are neutral and do not in any way lead the respondents to answer for or against toll roads.

Forty percent of respondents answered that infrastructure and roads were the biggest issue facing Central Texas, ahead of schools, which was at 13 percent. The question, however, was the fifth asked, after a number of transportation-related questions. Eighty percent of the respondents said that traffic in Central Texas has “gotten worse” in the last ten years.

Although a majority of respondents answered that they opposed tolls in most forms, given an option between tolls or increasing gas taxes, tolls won – by a mere one percent, 38-37 percent. Twenty-five percent said they didn’t know.

Steve Pustelnyk , the director of communications for CTRMA, said the response to that question indicates that there is a lack of understanding of the issue.

“Everybody wants the problem fixed, but they don’t see how we can fix it,” he said. He noted that some people think there is enough money for roads, but he said that simply isn’t true. Tolling, he said, is an economic necessity.

“It’s pretty clear that when you haven’t raised the gas tax in 20 years, you have a problem,” he said.

He said however that tolls were part of the solution, but not a fix-all. Noting that 42 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement that “there is a need for toll roads in Central Texas” while 50 percent disagreed, he said there is room for CTRMA to make its case.

“We will use [the survey] to determine what areas need further information to the public,” he said.

That response, however, galls the leading toll opponent, Sal Costello , the founder of He said that it was the role of the people to tell government what to think, not the other way around.

“You’ve got these unaccountable, unelected people and their response when people don’t want [tolls] is, ‘We need to spend money on more public relations,” Costello said. “The hysterical part is that the p.r . is funded by our tax dollars.”

Costello said that the survey show that the public is united in opposition to tolls.

“A whopping 78 percent said it’s a bad idea to convert existing highways to toll roads,” he said.

Although toll roads currently exist in Houston and Dallas, they are limited roads which were built years ago and were intended to be toll roads from the beginning. The latest toll road push, including the ideas of toll conversion and tolled lanes added to existing lanes has begun in the last two years following the changes implemented by 2003’s HB 3588.

Costello said that initial opposition, which began in Austin where the first such roads were proposed, is expanding statewide.

Pustelnyk said that in addition to making its case, CTRMA is also responding to the concerns that locals had about toll roads. One of the most controversial aspects of the process is toll conversion – the turning of existing, non-tolled roads into toll roads. Officials, he said, are changing their tolling strategy to respond to citizen complaints.

“I think that’s already happening,” he said. “Most of the earlier plans to convert non-tolled roads to tolls caused some groups to complain, and those have already been dropped.”

Another survey item asked respondents what they would say is a “reasonable” price for a mile of tollway . The largest group, 37 percent, said less than five cents, although that is about half of what the average cost per mile for toll roads is in the country. O

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