Sunday, October 08, 2006

Tolling existing highways: Penny-pinching, targeted taxing or a load of manure?

Toll roads a dishonest way to raise our taxes

October 8, 2006

Yvonne Mintz
The Facts
Copyright 2006

Whether we call it penny-pinching, targeted taxing or a load of manure, the plan to make new lanes on Highway 288 subject to toll fees amounts to nothing more than passing the buck.

We hope taxpayers — better yet voters — are smart enough to see the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan to make most of all new highway projects toll roads for what it is: an in-our-faces consequence of government attempting to sneak through a tax increase.

For a long time now, “holding the line on taxes” has translated to little more than a shell game. Austin or Washington can say it hasn’t raised taxes, can demand its departments turn in zero-sum budgets or spending plans that reflect cuts from what they spent last year, and voters will be satisfied those fiscal conservatives we elected are keeping their campaign promises.

Everybody’s happy.

That is, until the incidentals start creeping in. The sin taxes, the higher fees for visiting a state park, for vehicle registration or for a hunting or fishing license. Or until the services start being cut: reduced hours, staff cuts resulting in longer wait times for services and the like. Or until the sliding tax burden hits taxing entities further down the food chain through unfunded mandates, forcing them to turn to us anyway to make up the difference.

Such is the case here, where a service we used to expect would be paid by the highway department, with some local funding match through taxes and some federal assistance — also our money — now won’t be.

New lanes on Highway 288 that will run from Highway 59 in Houston to CR 60 near Iowa Colony will be constructed as toll roads, county and state officials said. Planning is ongoing and construction could start within five years.

Not to worry, though. Existing lanes will remain free, those in on the plans tell us.

Free? Hardly.

And at what speed will the existing lanes be set? Will they remain 65 mph roads or will those speed limits be lowered to push most of us who travel Highway 288 — which amounts to just about everybody in Brazoria County — to EZ Tag it on the pay lanes?

We’re not alone, though. The Harris County Toll Road Authority director says most new highway projects will be considered as toll roads because of a lack of state funding and a rise in construction costs. That’s even worse news, considering many roads we used to drive on for free (not really) now will expect us to drop a token at the gate.

The plan to toll the roads might be understandable if tolls were collected just to pay off the debt on expanding the roadway and then were ceased, with the roads then going into the state’s maintenance plan so money collected through taxes would be used to fix them.

Tolling might also be acceptable for new, convenience projects like the Grand Parkway superloop long planned to ring Beltway 8 through further flung areas such as Brazoria County.

Few of us, however, will consider improvements to Highway 288 as constituting a new roadway. Rather, it’s an old roadway more people now are using — people whose taxes on gas, property and other purchases we’re constantly told will offset the cost of the infrastructure they use.

Toll roads certainly are acceptable in some cases. However, in this case and others like it, let’s call a tax increase a tax increase. Trying to disguise it as something else would be dishonest.

Today’s editorial was written by Yvonne Mintz, managing editor of The Facts.

© 2006 The Facts.: