Friday, January 19, 2007

Ric Williamson: "Pay your 15 cents a mile and get the heck out of my way."

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Taking the Bull by the Horns

Ric Williamson addresses Texas's transportation concerns


AAA Texas
Texas Journey Magazine
Copyright 2007

Since its inception 50 years ago, the Interstate Highway System dramatically changed how Americans live, work, and play. Interstates have linked the East to the West and the North to the South, providing easy access to goods and job locations and contributing to a more prosperous economy. But the Interstate Highway System is at a crossroads: Today's voters, legislators, and transportation planners are faced with unprecedented challenges in traffic congestion, population growth, and road funding. To give TEXAS JOURNEY readers insight into these issues, AAA Texas government affairs representative Anne O'Ryan sat down with Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson to talk about the state's transportation future.

Ann O'Ryan: When we look at transportation in Texas, what have we been doing that you feel needs to be changed?

Ric Williamson: The dilemma Texas faces, and the dilemma that all [states] face, is that the binding scheme to support the transportation infrastructure might have made a lot of sense 50 years ago, [but] it makes very little sense for the next 50 years.

It’s interesting—when you study the history of the Interstate Highway System. It was originally proposed as a toll system, right up until the time that congressional leaders suggested to the president that they would rather raise the federal gasoline tax than stand behind a toll system. They weren't sure people would pay the tolls and use the system enough for it to grow as fast as they felt it needed to grow. That was a perfectly rational decision in 1956. Today, it is a perfectly irrational decision for those of us who live in high growth states and for those of us who have a tremendous infrastructure already in place that has to be maintained. [The current gas tax rate] does not generate enough cash flow to accomplish our goals at all. It’s not even close.

If you said, "What would that rate have to be today to maintain the current system and to build for the number of Texans and the number of road miles and the number of roads that have to be built?" the answer is 91 cents a gallon. And our tax rate is 20 cents a gallon.

If you said, "Tell me what the gas tax rate needs to be from this point forward, to catch up for what we didn't build the last 50 years, and what we know we’re going to have to build the next 25" the answer is $1.40 a gallon. Not 20 cents a gallon.

Ann O'Ryan: Texas today is considered a national model for transportation [with its plans to build more roads than any other state], What is Texas doing differently?

Ric Williamson: The governor and the legislature have said we've got a great tax system. The tax rate we have now on gasoline is sufficient to maintain [roads] and keep [them] in good shape. For capacity from this point forward, we’re going to parallel that [tax-funded road] system with toll roads.

We're going to do it as the private sector is willing to risk their money with us. And we're gonna use the private sector—and, in partnership, public trust—to decide when toll road's built, to assure ourselves that no toll road is built before it’s ready to be built. That’s why you see us planning for the Trans-Texas Corridor but not actively building it yet.

We have a governor and a legislature that understands the problem and are willing to take the heat for the most part for TxDOT to do projects that over the next 25 years will solve most of our transportation problems.

Ann O'Ryan: What do you believe are Texas's transportation problems today?

Ric Williamson: First and foremost is congestion. We have major congestion in our urban areas, which creates three costly problems. First, it contributes to very poor air quality. Second, it make's road travel within that area unsafe— the roads could be getting safer by a lot if we didn't have all this congestion. The third thing that congestion does—and that no one until Rick Perry was elected governor was willing to tackle—is that it taxes people's time. And this is the great indirect tax.

Congestion taxes people in ways that no one has been willing to quantify until now. And we’re realizing what a heavy toll it is. It takes a tremendous amount out of the economy of Texas. And it is beyond question, in our minds that high paying, high-quality jobs follow dependable and open transportation routes.

Ann O’Ryan: You were twice named as one of the 10 best legislators and dubbed “The Revolutionary" [by Texas Monthly magazine]. Do you see that as your rote as chairman of the Transportation Commission?

Ric Williamson: No. My role is whatever Governor Perry defines for me. The reference to revolutionary think is made in the context that every morning I've woken up and gone to my job in public service, I've done so with the notion that however we're doing things today may or may not be the best way so do things. And if it is not the best way to do things, there's no glory in defending that which doesn't work. You should never he afraid to look in the mirror and say, "I'm wrong" or "That’s not working" or "What I did isn't gonna work, and so now we need to change things." And I think it's safe to say that that’s not a normal approach to public service. But that's my approach.

Ann O’Ryan: So how is Texas going to address the congestion problem?

Ric Williamson: If you preferred strategy is to take- the limited amount of gasoline tax dollars that you have and distribute those gasoline tax dollars proportionally to the urban areas of the state, you’re probably not going to reduce congestion. If, on the other hand, your strategic direction is to use every financial tool available to you—to think in terms of how you can create more cash flow and deploy that tactically to reach your goals—then you've probably got a pretty good chance of being successful.

Ann O'Ryan: How will motorists be impacted?

Ric Williamson: For the next 15 years they’re going to see orange cones everywhere because these [toll and private financing projects] are going on and the Trans-Texas Corridor will kick off in four years.

After 15 years, we will almost overnight see congestion start t o disappear in places that we didn’t dream was possible. We'll put the finishing touches on a robust commuter rails system, and we think we'll have in place a series of short-haul taxis that the private sector will develop.

We think that, by the year 2020, air quality will noticeable disappear as congestion decreases. We think that high-paying jobs, such as those Toyota brought [with its new plant in San Antonio], will suddenly start popping up n the most unexpected places.

The most important thing Is that they're gonna see the same 20 cents a gallon gas tax we were paying 15 years earlier because we made a conscious decision to reserve the gas tax for the maintenance and repair of the existing [tax-funded road] system and to use the private sector and consumer-driven tolls to build our capacity expansion. We can honestly look the taxpayer in the eye and say, “You have a choice.”

Ann O'Ryan: Our members have told us that they don't want existing roads or existing lanes tolled. Will Texas be adding toll onto existing roads or lanes?

Ric Williamson: As long as Governor Perry is governor, he has said that will not happen. Both state and federal law require a series of events [to add tolls to existing lanes]. County government has to approve that. City government, in some cases, has to approve it. The Department of Transportation has to approve it.

But let me give you the public policy argument— the whole notion was based on some pretty clear thinking; Does the current gasoline tax pay for all these roads and all this clean air? No, it doesn't. It doesn't even come close.

So let me see if I understand this: I got this road moving through downtown Dallas, the apportioned taxes for this road are paying only part of the cost of the road, but somehow we shouldn’t toll that existing road? Tell me why. Explain to me why we shouldn’t do that. And really, the only valid answer is because, by God, we just don't want to.

Ann O'Ryan: Will there always be a reasonable non-tolled alternative?

Ric Williamson: First of all, you can have the best public policy in the world, but if the people don't accept it, then it never gets implemented.

So when you go down the toll road path, you've gotta do it in a way that people- will accept it, embrace it, take ownership in it- The way you do that is you never make them pay a toll.

But our argument is that the tax road system in Texas is so robust that we can parallel every major tax road with a toll lane or a toll road and I can honestly say, "Look, if you want to pay the 20-cent gas tax and stay on the tax road, then stay on the tax road. Nobody is making you get into this toll lane, nobody's, making you pay 15 cents a mile for this toll road. But if for whatever reason you want to get out of my way and get onto this toll road, please do so; it's right here. Pay your 15 cents a mile and get the heck out of my way." I just like that, I think it works. I think it makes sense.

© 2007 AAA Texas: