Friday, March 09, 2007

"No issue has so inflamed passions — and unified such disparate groups — as the current toll-road proposals winding through state government."

Some lawmakers want to delay toll roads, examine alternatives


Carlos Guerra:
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Over the decades of watching the Legislature, no issue has so inflamed passions — and unified such disparate groups — as the current toll-road proposals winding through state government.

Texas Department of Transportation officials have argued that the state's highway needs greatly exceed what fuel taxes will generate, and the only way to catch up with the traffic congestion is to sell some planned and existing roads to private operators and use the cash to build other roads.

Clearly, the proposal that has most inflamed opponents has been the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive 50-year project for which the state would seize quarter-mile swaths of land for toll roads with multiple lanes dedicated for autos, others for trucks, and right-of-way for railroads and utility easements.

But after taking the land, the state would turn it over to private operators who pay for construction in exchange for keeping the tolls and other revenues the corridors would generate.

Opposition to those plans grew quickly.

TxDOT was accused of inflating anticipated highway building costs and underestimating projected tax revenue. State officials were also faulted for negotiating in secret.

As opposition to Texas' public-private toll-road plans continue to mount, strong efforts are building in the Legislature to delay the toll project for at least a few years until the plans can be scrutinized more closely and other options can be developed and evaluated.

Whether such measures ever make it out of legislative committees remains to be seen, but even if such a law were to pass, wouldn't Gov. Rick Perry — who introduced TTC plans — simply veto it?

This is an important debate because it addresses a very basic issue: What is the role of government, and when is it appropriate for it to turn important elements of the public infrastructure to private-sector operators?

Other privatization experiments, most notably, the mess that private contractors made of the Child Health Insurance Program, aren't encouraging.

But other related issues must also be addressed, such as the notion that more highway lane-miles will relieve congestion.

We ought to remember how we got to this point.

For decades, Texans bragged about having the nation's finest highways.

That fabled system of well-maintained roads traversed a very different Texas, however, one that was thinly populated and largely rural, dotted with small towns and lots of space. And our few urban areas were small enough that the whole state could be served with a transportation system that relied heavily on two- to four-lane roads, some rudimentary freeways and a railroad system that served national and regional needs.

In time, interstate highways — generously funded with federal dollars — developed into the trunk system where road traffic is now most congested. But along the way, Texas also developed a pretty vast system of small roads that crisscross most of the countryside, and many of which have fueled development.

Now that Texas is the nation's second-most populous state and home of three of the nation's 10-largest cities and several of the country's fastest-growing metropolitan areas, relying solely on building more lane-miles — regardless of how they are funded — is not an option.

We must now incorporate mass transit and intermodal transportation between larger cities into the mix.

It won't be cheap, but the price will rise the longer we put it off.

Now, how to pay for it.

The only thing likely to reduce vehicular congestion that is choking some Texas cities is higher fuel prices. World shortages and instability may hike those prices — or we hike them ourselves by upping fuel taxes and using some of that revenue for alternatives to more asphalt.

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail
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