"This issue is about cronyism and big bucks, multidecade concessions, and which international corporation will get them."
San Antonio Express-News
If Texans are rancorously debating toll roads — an issue likely to decide November's governor's election — there are four good reasons for it.
Texas' population exploded during the 1990s, and the growth will continue for at least 25 years. International trade also increased traffic to and from Mexico.
And over that decade, highway funding shrunk so that now, more than half of the state's gasoline taxes pay for maintenance of Texas' enormous highway system.
But clearly, the biggest reason we're debating toll roads is that Texans love to travel Texas' miles and miles, and special interests want the big bucks from building multibillion-dollar highways, and even bigger bucks from charging people to drive on them over the next 50 to 99 years.
Ric Williamson, head of the Texas Transportation Commission, is often vilified for asserting that within our lifetime most Texas highways will be toll roads. Almost equally quoted is the Hobson's choice he offered: "It's either toll roads, slow roads or no roads."
But are those our only real choices? Of course not.
This issue is about cronyism and big bucks, multidecade concessions, and which international corporation will get them, that's all.
David Casteel is the Texas Department of Transportation's district engineer for the San Antonio and Laredo districts. TxDOT, he emphasizes, doesn't write Texas' public policies regarding highways, or even transportation. It takes orders from the Legislature and the Texas Transportation Commission, and increasingly, orders from the metropolitan planning organizations that now determine how transportation resources are spent locally.
Additionally, TxDOT's newest bosses are new regional mobility authorities that the Legislature empowered to decide where toll roads are built, by whom, and how much they should toll.
Casteel says that more roadway lane miles are needed now, and that population and traffic growth have overtaken TxDOT's budget, which is largely funded by a state tax on gasoline.
"We were on a pay-as-you go system, so our answer was wait, wait, wait and when we get the money we will build your road," he says. "But in that time, congestion got worse; we have one of the fastest rates of growth for congestion."
The biggest reason Texas can't keep up with increased traffic is that TxDOT'S funding hasn't kept up with population growth or even inflation, he says, and gas taxes have been raided during lean years to balance budgets.
"The last time the gas tax was raised was in 1991, when it was raised a nickel (to 20 cents per gallon) and it wasn't indexed to inflation," Casteel says.
"During the past 25 years, at the state level, more than $10 billion has been used from the state gas tax for other purposes, and during that time, population increased 67 percent in Texas and we were only able to add 8 percent more lane miles, so the math is pretty simple."
But is tolling 90 percent of our new and existing highways the answer?
In future columns, we will explore if a higher gasoline tax is better than tolls computed per-mile and increased as congestion rises; if absolutely necessary toll roads shouldn't be owned by the state instead of a private concern; and why privately operated toll road deals will guarantee that toll-free roads, by contract, will be left to deteriorate and virtually vanish.
To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail email@example.com. His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: