Saturday, December 02, 2006

"This governor's toll and 'innovative financing' scheme is destroying our public freeway system."


Perry's toll road proposals will fleece Texas taxpayers


Terri Hall
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

Re: the editorial "First few tolled miles right move for Texas" (Nov. 19):

No one can give a single rational reason taxpayers should pay tolls for roads and improvements that are already 100 percent funded, such as U.S. 281 here in San Antonio, Texas 71 and U.S. 183 in Austin and Texas 121 in Dallas.

The Texas Mobility Fund, also known as Proposition 15 and passed in 2001, was sold to voters as accelerating transportation projects using bonds. Toll roads were on a list of projects noted in this vague ballot wording that politicians also used to divine the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Nowhere did this authorize the conversion of existing roads and rights of way into toll roads, nor did it authorize privatizing our public highways, nor did it authorize a Minute Order the Transportation Commission passed in December 2003 calling for all new improvements to be considered for tolls first.

The Texas Department of Transportation is repeatedly attempting to use population growth as the reason to toll existing and new improvements to Texas roads.

Let's look at the facts.

When population increases, tax revenues also increase. TxDOT's budget has more than doubled since Rick Perry took office without raising our taxes. TxDOT's revenues have gone up about 178 percent in the past 20 years, and that's adjusted for inflation and population growth.

Then consider that close to $10 billion in transportation funds have been raided to fund such things as cemeteries, tourism promotion and a computer system in the comptroller's office. There's no shortage of cash. Rather, there's a shortage of fiscal discipline in favor of frivolous earmarks, which were a contributing factor in Republicans losing control of Congress in this last election.

TxDOT also has $7 billion (which is nearly equivalent to an amount doubling its annual budget) available in bonds right now to accelerate freeway improvements. Instead, it has earmarked them for toll roads.

TxDOT also has its own study on how to relieve congestion on Interstate 35 using existing funds and right of way, but it's now ignoring it in favor of tolling I-35, Texas 130 (a bypass route from San Antonio to Austin) and the Trans-Texas Corridor, making it nearly impossible to travel north-south in this state without paying a toll.

When tolls increase the cost of a project anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent more than constructing it as a nontoll project, when we pay 1 cent to 3 cents per mile under gas taxes versus 25 cents or more per mile on a toll road (per TxDOT's own studies and admission it'll charge "whatever the market will bear") and when TxDOT uses noncompete agreements allowing the private entity control over the free lanes (including downgrading free lanes to frontage roads, slowing speed limits, increasing stop light times and prohibiting the state from upgrading or improving free lanes/roads near the tollway), it's a no-brainer to conclude the taxpayer is getting fleeced!

This governor's toll and "innovative financing" scheme is destroying our public freeway system. This new version of tolling is about generating more taxes (a toll is a tax) for the state while engaging in a revenue-sharing scheme that also lines the pockets of private and foreign companies (many based here in San Antonio), not about providing safe, efficient transportation all Texans can use.

It's time for the public's concerns to be addressed, not swept under the rug or sidestepped to "give toll roads a chance."

Most folks have no problem with traditional toll roads, such as those in Houston and Dallas, that were brought to a public vote, were brand-new roads and the money and control stayed local. But this "let them eat cake" mentality is going to be a political noose around the neck of any politician who continues down the road of privatizing our public assets to enrich special interests and hijacking our free lanes to line the pockets of private entities in 50-year monopolies.

For more information, go to www.

Terri Hall is regional director of San Antonio Toll, a nonpartisan, grass-roots organization promoting nontoll, good government transportation solutions.

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