Thursday, March 08, 2007

"There is something unTexan about these 'Lexus highways.' "

Texas toll roads

Miles to go

Should Texans have to pay to drive?

Mar 8, 2007

The Economist (UK)
Copyright 2007

TEXANS are addicted to aggressive driving. They have made an art form of tailgating, honking and weaving across clogged interstate-highway lanes. Plenty more of this sort of behaviour on the roads lies ahead. By 2030 the state's population is projected to rise by at least 40%, with most growth occurring in the big cities.

Toll roads are the answer, the state has decreed. In the past few months drivers have begun paying to use roads north of Austin. More will open later this year. Other free highways in central Texas could also be converted to tollways, including a popular route to the airport in Austin.

Some tollways are seen as necessary, but not too many. In 2004 one Texan, irked at the prospective tolling of a bridge near his house, founded the Texas Toll Party, which urges people to vote against toll roads. In February a Texas legislator introduced a bill to stop building on all new toll roads planned by the state Department of Transportation until September 2009. “People are frustrated and angry,” says Kirk Watson, a former mayor of Austin, now a state senator. Other bills, including one from Mr Watson, are also circulating.

Critics claim there is something unTexan about these “Lexus highways” (as the chief executive of the American Trucking Associations has dubbed them). But toll-road supporters insist that this is the best way to meet the needs of a fast-growing state. At the moment highways are funded by a motor-fuels (ie, petrol) tax of 20 cents a gallon; a federal motor-fuels tax; and vehicle registration fees. The state petrol tax does not rise with inflation and has not increased since 1991. Just try raising such a tax in the heart of oil country.

An even bigger issue looms. Governor Rick Perry's pet project is the Trans-Texas Corridor, running more than 300 miles (480km) from Dallas to San Antonio, more or less parallel to existing, often-congested Interstate 35. Cars choosing to avoid the interstate could run on tollways. Unlike the recently opened tollways near Austin (which were financed mainly by bonds), these would be operated by private companies. A consortium led by Cintra, a Spanish company, is preparing plans. It is giving Texas $1.2 billion up front for the privilege of developing the corridor, in which it plans to invest $6 billion.

The drone against foreign companies has reached a predictable pitch. An animated YouTube video, prepared before last November's election and now visited more than 33,000 times, warns against allowing moneybag-laden Mr Perry to hand over Texan infrastructure to “foreign robber barons”. The real issue, says Mr Watson, is the tollways' potential effect on existing state roads. Private operators' contracts with the state could include non-compete clauses—or penalties against the state for making improvements to non-toll highways, such as adding lanes. As public roads suffer, more people would be forced onto tollways. Operators, wanting to recoup their investment, could boost prices considerably. The alternatives are a rise in the petrol tax, or eternal congestion.

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