Wednesday, August 09, 2006

"Some things — like essential infrastructure — are best left in the public sector where they can be held accountable."

Where is the wisdom of selling what we can't do without?


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

For incumbents who support them, toll roads have grown into a political hot potato. Don't be shocked if their challengers turn them into a political wooden stake.

Two years ago, the Texas Department of Transportation held a public meeting in our city to unveil plans for the Trans Texas Corridor, an ambitious proposal by which the state will seize up to 600 miles of quarter-mile-wide swaths of land to build multiple roadway lanes and railroad tracks, and pipeline and utility easements.

The state will then lease this land to a private operator that will fund construction, make an up-front payment and share some of the revenues it collects from tolls and leases with the state.

The beauty of the plan, proponents say, is that roads will be built sooner and Texas will reap a multibillion-dollar windfall that will fund other roadwork — all without raising taxes!

In 2004, Express-News transportation writer Pat Driscoll reported that about two-dozen residents showed up at TxDOT's meeting.

Tuesday, TxDOT held a hearing on TTC plans. This time, 900 people signed in, so when the East Central High School cafeteria's 600 seats and standing room were filled, many were turned away.

Most came to express their opposition, which doesn't surprise me.

Every time I have written about toll roads — and especially about the Trans Texas Corridor — it has generated heavy reader response, almost all against tolling. And among the few who have written to cheer tolling, many have been from people directly connected to the road-construction industry.

Some opponents fear losing family land or having it bisected, while others think that paying to drive on right-of-way bought with public money, while burning taxed gasoline, is double taxation.

Others think giving foreign companies control of the state's infrastructure is dangerously foolish, and still others believe the TTC is part of a conspiracy to build a highway to connect Mexican sea ports with the U.S. heartland and Canada so that U.S. longshoremen and Teamsters can be replaced with lower-wage Mexican workers.

I am reminded of columns I wrote in 1997, when utility deregulation was the rage in Austin. Proponents asserted that market forces not only solve all problems, they do so better and more cheaply.

In San Antonio's City Hall, a study was commissioned to investigate the possible sale of what was then City Public Service, our city-owned purveyor of electricity and gas.

"What if CPS can't compete in an unregulated environment?" study proponents asked, before pointing out that privatizing our utilities would reap the city billions that could fund massive improvements — without raising taxes!

I was suspicious.

"We should be wary of any proposal to privatize (basic infrastructure)," I wrote in 1997, before adding: "We would never consider selling Loops 410 and 1604, Interstates 10, 35 and 37 to private investors (because) they would turn them into toll roads and render us subject to their price demands."

The sale fell through, and today CPS Energy still has some of Texas' cheapest energy rates, and still funds more than a quarter of our city budget, while rates of deregulated private utilities have skyrocketed.

Sure, the market works great in many areas. But some things — like essential infrastructure — are best left in the public sector where they can be held accountable.

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