Monday, March 12, 2007

Billionaire car dealer and sports magnate touts the benefits of private toll roads


As traffic worsens, voters should remain open to solutions


Red McCombs
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Legislation has been introduced to slow or stop construction of major highway projects and to remove nontax revenue sources from the state's transportation toolbox. If these measures prevail, they may temporarily quiet some toll road opponents, but they risk even greater civic, safety and economic protests by delaying the completion of needed roadways.

Texas is growing by leaps and bounds. Each year, more people and employers choose to make Texas their home. Our state has added 600,000 jobs in the past 34 months.

Unfortunately, since transportation funding has not kept pace with population and job growth, traffic is getting significantly worse in cities and suburban communities. Strain is also evident on more rural roads, especially in fatalities and accident rates.

While most of us can agree there is a problem, there are no easy solutions. To build needed roads, policy-makers have the choice of: 1) raising gasoline taxes, 2) allowing additional toll roads, 3) allowing privately funded-publicly owned toll roads or 4) doing nothing.

The worst scenario is for lawmakers to prohibit or limit the use of tolls or private funds to pay for needed road projects without authorizing new transportation funding to offset the revenue loss.

Doing nothing to ease gridlock is the worst option. Yet that's what a majority of protesters and even some legislators seem to be calling for with a proposal for a moratorium on building new, and much needed, roads. A moratorium is a short-term political fix for a far-reaching issue.

The reality is there are two approaches to building new roads. One is through a broad-based gas tax increase; the other is through user fees, such as toll roads.

There are some lawmakers advocating significant increases in the state gasoline tax as a way to pay for additional roads. Gas tax increases in excess of 40 cents per gallon would be needed to get serious about solving traffic problems.

By using toll roads and private investment in addition to traditional funding methods, Texas can get more roads built, faster, and without a significant tax increase for Texas families and businesses.

And through the use of public-private partnerships or comprehensive development partnerships, such as the $5 billion Texas 121 project, Texas would have the resources to complete additional road projects because of the billions of dollars in concessions private companies are willing to pay the state to build and manage user-financed toll roads.

Texans will see an additional benefit because concession money paid to the state upfront will be used to meet local transportation needs — including additional nontoll roads or even passenger rail systems. Concessions will also provide communities more money to maintain and improve existing taxpayer-funded roads.

New toll roads and public-private partnerships are a significant departure from business-as-usual highway funding in Texas. Change can be difficult, but in a state as vibrant and fast-growing as Texas, we must change the way we fund needed transportation projects.

In the end, the choices are simple. We continue to search for innovative solutions and use toll and public-private partnership to get roads built faster without increasing costs to taxpayers, raise the gasoline tax to much higher levels hoping to alleviate the situation or do nothing and let traffic and safety deteriorate.

Most legislators seem to recognize the need for more and better roads. But there's no agreement yet on how to pay for them. Perhaps the best option is to allow state and local transportation agencies to use the tools given by lawmakers, including private funds and user fees, to keep Texans moving.

A moratorium or to do nothing is senseless. Courage. Keep Texas moving. Courage.

Red McCombs is a San Antonio businessman.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

BTW: Billy Joe 'Red' McCombs' nephew also works for an engineering firm that would bid on private toll roads [CLICK HERE]

Courage, Red, Courage!

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