Friday, March 02, 2007

"It's incumbent upon us as elected officials, when we're off course, to change course."

If tolls fall, tax may rise

Mar. 02, 2007

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- Texans who are demanding that the state stop building toll roads may get their wish.

But they might not like the alternative: Higher state gas taxes.

There is broad support in Austin for increasing the state's 20-cents-a-gallon motor fuel tax , says a lawmaker leading the effort to strip the Texas Department of Transportation's authority to build toll roads and enter into agreements with private companies. The Texas gas tax has not gone up since 1991.

"The message is loud and clear. You couldn't not hear it. People want us to build roads, and they're willing to pay for it, but they're not willing to pay with tolls," said state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

The gas tax probably would go up a little at a time -- perhaps a penny or two every five years or so -- to keep up with the cost of building roads.

Motorists currently pay 20 cents a gallon in state tax and 18.4 cents a gallon in federal tax.

"If the gas tax is going to be the primary vehicle for paying for these roads, we have to make sure it keeps pace," Carona said.

Carona also predicted that the Trans-Texas Corridor toll road "will likely never be built" because of its high cost and political opposition.

"It's incumbent upon us as elected officials, when we're off course, to change course," Carona said.

The committee met all day Thursday and heard from more than 100 people, including dozens of Texans -- county officials, environmentalists and farmers -- demanding that laws allowing privately run toll roads be repealed.

"Can a project with this much political clout be stopped? That is my ... prayer," said Clare Easley, whose family has lived on a central Texas farm near Georgetown since the 1850s.

Tarrant projects threatened

Metroplex officials testified that the anti-toll sentiment could seriously delay many Tarrant County projects for which private bids are being sought.

"It would be devastating to Dallas-Fort Worth," even with just a two-year moratorium on toll projects, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

He noted that construction is scheduled to begin next year on the Texas 114/121 DFW Connector project in Grapevine and the 35W/820/183 project in Fort Worth and Northeast Tarrant County; if the laws are changed, both projects could be delayed many more years. The state intends to farm out both projects, which include the construction of toll lanes, to a private contractor.

Power struggle

Transportation Department officials are fighting to keep four years of gains in political clout. Since 2003, the agency has been allowed to use many types of financing, including debt, to build roads.

Transportation Commission member Ted Houghton of El Paso downplayed the possible rollback of power. He noted that earlier this week, the Spanish firm Cintra agreed to build and manage the Texas 121 toll road in Denton and Collin counties -- and pay $2.8 billion for Metroplex officials to use on other projects.

"What legislator is going to pooh-pooh $2.8 billion?" Houghton said.

But Jere Thompson of Dallas, a former state turnpike official and Dallas energy executive, said tolls and private investment wouldn't be necessary if the Transportation Department would spend less of its money in Austin and rural areas and more in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

The Metroplex was shortchanged $2.8 billion from 2001-06 because it didn't receive its fair share of funds compared with other parts of Texas, he said. Transportation officials later said the figures Thompson was using didn't tell the complete story.

Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford defended the agency's toll strategies, saying they are the result of years of inadequate state funding.

Funding essential

Williamson said there is no easy way to plan for Texas' future road needs. In the committee room, he displayed a map using Texas Data Center statistics that shows the Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio metropolitan areas essentially touching by 2040, as congestion stretches from Sherman to Laredo.

"We collectively in this state face a problem that transcends any problem we've faced before," Williamson said. "For 20 years, we've built virtually no increased capacity into our transportation system and our population is growing faster than any other industrial state in the nation."

The anti-toll road crowd, which had been hissing at Williamson's other comments during the day, didn't say anything about that.

Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816

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