Sunday, January 29, 2006

Fierce opposition has developed across Texas to toll road boondoggles.

Carlos Guerra: Have we considered alternatives to ambitious toll-road plans?


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

Yes, Texas' population explosion and increased overland shipping — especially to and from Mexico — have created big traffic congestion.

And as they build highways at some of the nation's highest per-mile costs, Texas Department of Transportation officials insist that the gas taxes that funded highways for decades just aren't keeping up.

We need to start on hundreds of billions of dollars of new highways, they say. And the only way to pay for expanding existing freeways, building new ones and maintaining Texas' fast-growing web of asphalt is to charge tolls.

Granted, charging tolls isn't a new idea, even in Texas, once bragging that it had the nation's best highways. But it also had locally approved toll roads — such as the extensive systems in Houston and the Metroplex. Tolls were also used to pay for local projects, like the causeway to North Padre Island. But in many of these smaller projects, once the bonds were retired, so were the tolls.

What TxDOT now proposes, however, differs markedly from toll projects of old in several ways, and especially in its magnitude.

That is why fierce opposition has developed across Texas to the boondoggles, and turned toll road plans into a hot potato for elected officials who have embraced them.

Did anyone really expect many to cheer the notion of turning existing free highways, and still unbuilt highways funded to be free lanes into toll roads?

And even more galling are plans to award contracts without competitive bids to private firms so they will pay for huge tollways — on state-seized land — in return for pocketing unspecified tolls for many decades into the future.

Similar arrangements exist elsewhere, and more such ventures are being considered in at least 16 other states. But where such public-private ventures exist, there have often been problems.

Many projections of how many drivers would use the tollways turned out to be wildly optimistic, and I found only one case in which the public ultimately benefited. That was in the nearby Camino Colombia, which for a price, would allow Mexico-bound truckers to bypass Laredo. But its projections were so far off that within four years of opening it was bankrupt. And TxDOT picked up the highway that cost $90 million to build for $20 million.

Elsewhere, traffic and revenue shortfalls have almost always led to toll increases, and in at least one case, they led to the state getting stuck with maintenance costs.

Perhaps the worst case, however, was that of the 10 miles of toll-lanes built parallel to a state highway in Orange County, Calif., by a private venture group that would collect tolls for 35 years.

As is now promised here, Californians were told they could keep taking the free — and perhaps, slower — lanes if they chose to not pay tolls. And so many drivers took that option that the state started preparing to widen the free roads and better maintain them.

But the state was stopped because the investors had exacted a non-compete clause that prevented California from building or improving state roads within 1 1/2 miles of the toll lanes. In the end, the state bought the toll lanes that cost $125 million to build for $207.5 million, which was raised with bonds that will be repaid by —you guessed it — toll-lane revenues.

Here's a better alternative: People drive less as gas prices rise. So, let's encourage less driving by raising gas taxes, which will let us scale back highway building plans — and let us keep them free.

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail

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