Friday, July 21, 2006

"If we just instilled some discipline in our state budget, we wouldn't need a lot of these toll roads."

Bexar politicians say toll roads shouldn't be the only option


Jaime Castillo
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

They seem like odd questions in a so-called red state, but has Lyle Larson become the rare fiscal conservative in the Republican Party? Or is state Sen. Jeff Wentworth the uncommon Republican willing to buck the party line?

The state's GOP leadership, from Gov. Rick Perry to Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, is convinced that building toll roads is the only way to meet Texas' highway needs of the future.

Larson, the Bexar County commissioner who has refused two pay increases since joining Commissioners Court in 1997, has a different idea: return to that seemingly forgotten Republican principle of reining in spending.

As he sees it, the state Legislature has created a self-fulfilling highway crisis by continually robbing the state highway fund for purposes other than road construction and maintenance.

From fiscal year 1986 to 2005, nearly $8.7 billion, or $10.6 billion in 2004 dollars, of the fund was spent on non-highway items, including state historical and arts commissions, parking lots and roads at state prisons and the Department of Public Safety.

Compare that to the projected $8 billion shortfall over the next 25 years for new highway lanes and bus service in San Antonio, and Larson can't help but wonder: "If we just instilled some discipline in our state budget, we wouldn't need a lot of these toll roads."

Is this the oversimplified view of a local official who doesn't walk the halls of the state Capitol? Or is there some truth to his analysis?

Both, said Wentworth, who was a county commissioner in the 1980s.

"The charge is made that we began allowing funds to be siphoned off from the highway fund," he said. "It's absolutely true."

But Wentworth, whose six-county district includes the northern Bexar County area slated for toll projects along Loop 1604 and U.S. 281, said politics has reduced the available solutions for lawmakers.

Earlier this year, the senator's office received 16,000 responses to a highway funding survey.

Seventy-seven percent said they don't want gas taxes raised up to 50 cents a gallon, and 54 percent said they don't want to use toll roads to fund more highway construction.

"The message is: 'I'm a Texan, and I'm entitled to the best roads, the best schools, the safest streets and the best parks,'" Wentworth said. "And then they say, 'Oh, and while I've got you on the phone, senator, I don't want you to raise any taxes.'"

Wentworth said it doesn't help that state leaders like Perry won't even consider options other than toll roads, like raising the gas tax, which has been stuck at 20 cents since 1991.

"I think he's been co-opted by the drum beat of no new taxes," Wentworth said of the governor. "Unfortunately, there's some people in my party who think that's the only requisite to being a Republican."

Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said the governor remains firmly against increasing the gas tax, particularly as prices approach $3 a gallon at the pump. And a more frugal approach to the state's highway fund is welcomed but won't address all of the state's needs.

Maybe. But it sure would be easier to swallow if it at least looked like state leaders hadn't unilaterally decided that toll roads are the only option.

To contact Jaime Castillo, call (210) 250-3174 or e-mail

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