Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"We need to be smart about how we address our transportation options. The most expensive might not be the best."

Toll-road rejection may spark big gas-tax jump


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

If the idea of paying tolls to drive on future highway lanes in San Antonio turns your stomach, perhaps you could swallow a higher gas tax instead.

How about adding 38.2 cents a gallon, or as much as $1.09, on top of the 38.4-cent tax that motorists pay now.

That's what Texas Department of Transportation officials came up with recently when they estimated how high the gas tax would have to go in Bexar County to widen 70 miles of highways without tolling the new lanes.

The difference is whether motorists everywhere in the county pay a new gas tax of 1 to 2 cents a mile, depending on vehicle miles per gallon, or if only drivers using the new lanes pay a toll of 15 to 20 cents a mile.

Neither is all that palatable.

"People are getting squeezed, especially the middle class," said Stone Oak resident Jerry Zimmermann, who lives near the nexus of a planned North Side tollway network. "There's no relief coming."

Zimmermann has at least two layers of protection against a local gas tax increase — state legislators and voters would have to approve it. However, he has only one line of defense against toll lanes that could be added to U.S. 281, Loop 1604, Bandera Road, Interstate 35 and the junction of Wurzbach Parkway and U.S. 281 — he simply could avoid them.

"If anything, I think we need to consider mass transit. I haven't heard anybody talking about that," Zimmerman said, adding that passenger rail might justify a tax increase.

The low-ball estimate of 38.2 cents a gallon would raise $231 million a year (in estimated 2026 dollars), or almost $9.3 billion over 40 years.

That's enough to pay off $2.2 billion worth of road bonds (in 2004 dollars), which projected toll fees otherwise would finance, and spend $30 million a year to maintain the new lanes.

Another $800 million, either from other taxes or private investments, still would be needed.

TxDOT argues it would be cheaper to sell bonds and build now because global demand for asphalt, cement and steel has forced up prices for those materials much faster than inflation in recent years and likely will continue. State highway construction costs went up 33 percent last year alone.

"You're making money if you go ahead and do it now," said David Casteel, who oversees TxDOT's office in San Antonio.

The lower estimate assumes that driving nearly doubles over four decades, average fuel efficiency doesn't get higher than 37 mpg, borrowing rates hover around 6.5 percent, all proceeds are spent on the roads and only 5 percent of motorists abscond to other counties to buy gas.

The jump of $1.09 a gallon assumes that driving increases just half as fast, fuel efficiency more than doubles to 50 mpg, borrowing rates get up to 7.5 percent, 40 percent of revenues are diverted to schools, mass transit and other uses — a third is currently diverted, including 25 percent to public education — and one in five motorists slip off to other counties to buy gas.

"There's an unlimited number of scenarios you can analyze," Casteel said.

At least one toll critic isn't completely sold on TxDOT's estimates.

Bill Barker, a transportation consultant and former VIA Metropolitan Transit planner who advises San Antonio Toll Party, wishes officials would look for ways to reduce how much people drive, such as creating neighborhoods friendlier to mass transit and walking, and consider cheaper ways to get more traffic moving on existing streets, such as adding turn lanes, timing traffic lights better or replacing signal lights with roundabouts.

"We're growing and we need to be smart about how we address our transportation options," he said. "The most expensive might not be the best."

It seems there are an unlimited number of opinions about tolls roads.

"They're fine, especially if you live out there (North Loop 1604)," said Jennifer Garcia, adding that toll roads won't ease her commute from near the Medical Center to her job downtown. "If it's going to alleviate problems over there, and everybody's happy, then they're fine."

"They suck," said Merlin O'Brien, who lives at Canyon Lake and uses U.S. 281 for his treks to San Antonio. "I don't think we need toll roads."

The gas tax idea doesn't have steady legs either.

"Nobody wants taxes raised at all," Garcia said.

Gas station owners say a local gas tax would scare away customers to other counties, and collecting the tax would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

"We would obviously have to oppose that," said Scott Fisher, a spokesman with the Texas Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, whose members own, operate or supply about 16,000 retail outlets.

O'Brien said he might be convinced if there was a way to ensure the money was spent as promised. And, he said, he still would buy gas in San Antonio even if it were 38 cents higher than other cities.

"Wherever I need it," he said. "You always need gas."

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: