Saturday, September 02, 2006

"The governor was simply delaying the expected outrage."

Pay roads will exact heavy toll

September 2, 2006

Sherry Jacobson
Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

Gov. Rick Perry wants us to believe he wasn't being political when he announced this week that the state would delay charging tolls on State Highway 121 until after the election in November.

I don't buy it.

His gubernatorial opponents also cried foul, accusing Mr. Perry of buying the votes of drivers who were grateful they didn't have to start paying tolls yesterday.

But that's not my take on why he did it.

The governor was simply delaying the expected outrage that will occur when this state highway turns into a state toll road. Lots of drivers are going to be angry about this conversion, even though we've been hearing about it for years as the road was being rebuilt.

Driver outrage could easily carry a lot of Texans into the voting booth in November if they consider what's been happening to the state's highway system in recent years.

From my view, the state has cleverly abdicated its responsibility to build highways financed with gasoline taxes in favor of requiring drivers to pay as they go on toll roads.

Some people may call it a toll or a user fee, but I prefer to call it a tax – unofficial perhaps – but a pure and simple tax on driving.

I build my case on the fact that the money disappearing from my wallet will pay for roads I'm not necessarily using. For example, the millions generated by State Highway 121's future tolls will probably go to refurbish Interstate 35E and widen FM423 in Denton.

In the past, toll revenues went to retire the construction debt on a particular road. Theoretically, the toll ended when the road was paid for, which doesn't happen if the road keeps growing.

But the current arrangement allows them to go on forever and increase over time without public input.

The politicians who are approving these toll roads don't want to be blamed for what the driving public is paying. You might even hear certain elected officials claim they've done such a good job holding down gasoline, property and sales taxes.

But don't be duped.

Remember all the other ways that government has found to make us pay for basic public services, such as building toll roads instead of freeways.

When I complained in a recent column about the proliferation of toll roads in the Dallas area, I was flooded with e-mail from readers who shared my frustration. (A few disagreed, saying they don't want to pay for any road they don't use.)

The anti-toll sentiment might actually turn into something big if the Texas Department of Transportation and the North Texas Tollway Authority add as many toll bridges, toll roads and toll lanes to existing highways as they are capable of doing.

This week, I found some folks who didn't like the toll-road trend. They just happened to be visiting Stonebriar Centre, a regional mall in Frisco at the crossroads of Highway 121 and the Dallas North Tollway.

"I think it's terrible, to tell you the truth," said Marion McGrade, a 78-year-old Frisco woman. "People on fixed incomes don't have enough money to pay tolls, between the electricity costs and everything else."

Josh Kellam said it would cost him about $120 a month to get from his home in Tarrant County to his job in Collin County once Highway 121 is done.

"I wouldn't mind paying tolls," he conceded. "But the roads aren't that convenient. It takes 45 to 50 minutes to get home from work."

Paulette Klein of Plano said toll roads attract drivers mainly because other routes are lacking. "The only alternative in Plano is an incomplete grid of city streets," she said.

Several people who work at Stonebriar said they would stick to Highway 121's service roads to avoid paying tolls, even if the drive were clogged with traffic lights and yield zones.

A couple of mall visitors admitted they were resigned to using toll roads because the state wouldn't build anything else.

"Just think if we didn't have them, what would it be like?" asked Robby Campbell, a Plano contractor who drives all over the Dallas area. "I'd spend more money on gas and lost time."

State officials are counting on Texans to embrace toll roads as an either-or proposition: Either you accept a toll road or you get no road.

But eventually, people will ask themselves why they're being forced to spend hundreds – even thousands of dollars every year – to drive on local highways.

And then we can have a real debate about state funding priorities, about direct public approval of toll roads and about how to generate adequate tax money to support our roads.

Until then, let me suggest a new Texas motto: Toll roads are us.


© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co