Friday, January 12, 2007

"State leaders owe Texans an honest view of the choices so they can decide whether they prefer more reliance on gasoline taxes or toll roads."

Texans deserve fair analysis of options


San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

To hear some Texas officials tell it, privately funded toll roads are the only way to finance the state's growing population and the traffic it generates.

Traffic congestion rose by 126 percent from 1990 to 2000, despite increased state funding. With the population poised to balloon to 36 million by 2025, this scenario will likely continue.

But no one has been willing to seriously propose a gas tax increase of $1.20 a gallon, the figure touted by state officials as needed to fund an $86 billion statewide shortfall.

Turns out both those figures are inaccurate, according to a recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute, a research arm of the Texas Department of Transportation.

According to the report, the shortfall is more like $78 billion, and $22 billion of that is covered by local, not state, dollars.

Of the remaining $56 billion, about $44 billion is needed for the largest metropolitan areas. And funding for that chunk could be achieved with an 8-cent-per-gallon increase adjusted over time for inflation in construction costs. If the tax were not tied to inflation, it would have to be raised by a flat 31 cents per gallon.

Both figures are a far cry from an instant increase of $1.20.

The gas tax, which has not been raised in 15 years, is a mix of 20 cents in state taxes and 18.4 cents in federal taxes. Since 25 percent of the state tax goes to public education, a rise in the gas tax also means more badly needed dollars for schools, as Express-News transportation writer Patrick Driscoll reported.

Toll roads should be considered where appropriate, as they offer a viable option to motorists and provide considerable upfront money from private entities. But given this new information, a gas tax increase merits serious consideration as well.

The mantra of elected officials is that any increase in the gas tax is politically unpalatable. In pursuing such a measure, elected officials risk their political capital. While that may be true, it is unfortunate.

As consumers in the world's most prosperous nation, we must disabuse ourselves of the idea that our lifestyles must come cheaply.

Perhaps an increase in the gas tax, in addition to raising money, will raise awareness about the need for innovative forms of transportation, such as light rail or hybrid vehicles.

In his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush spoke of America's addiction to oil. If this discussion over tolls versus taxes does anything, it should remind us of the bigger picture.

And at least state leaders owe Texans an honest view of the choices so they can decide whether they prefer more reliance on gasoline taxes or toll roads.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News: