Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Sen. Carona: "Raise the gas tax slowly, year by year, and Texas wouldn't need most of the glut of toll-road projects now on the books."

Gas tax called toll alternative


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Raise the gas tax slowly, year by year, and Texas wouldn't need most of the glut of toll-road projects now on the books, state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said Monday in Austin.

The state surely would be able to resist the allure of cash from corporations looking to finance and operate tollways in hopes of raking in profits down the road, said Carona, chairman of the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

"It is a far less expensive approach to meeting our future transportation needs than the proliferation of toll roads that make up the bulk of our transportation projects," he said.

Referring to a recent report by the Governor's Business Council that compares gas taxes and toll fees as ways to fund roads, Carona offered these scenarios for 2030:

  • The 38.4 cents per gallon in combined state and federal taxes, untouched, would bring in a paltry $4.6 billion, not even enough to maintain roads.
  • Indexing the gas tax to consumer inflation, about 3 percent a year, would raise it by 43 cents and bring in almost $10 billion.
  • Indexing the gas tax to rising costs of highway construction, 7 percent a year, would raise it by 69 cents, and bring in almost $16 billion.
  • Stashing the proceeds into the Texas Mobility Fund for 20 years would finance 10 times that amount in bonds.
  • Motorists could see a tax of 81 cents to $1.07 a gallon in 2030, depending on the scenario.

Carona said a typical driver would pay an extra $21 a month — $13 when fuel savings from less gridlock is subtracted. For the same trip on a tollway, assuming $2.50 a round trip and going up 3 percent a year, the cost would get as high as $100.

As far as whether it would be fair for rural drivers to help foot the bill for solving big city traffic problems, Carona said all Texans need more roads no matter where they live, whether for movement of people or goods. And there are big needs now.

"No part of our state is an island," he said.

And on the messy problem of skyrocketing construction inflation, which in Texas has been averaging 20 percent annually for the past three years, the senator said he and other lawmakers are prepared to cap annual gas-tax increases to something like 4.5 percent a year.

Many advocates on both sides of what has become a bitter debate on state tolling policies find some common ground when it comes to the prospect of higher gas taxes.

The San Antonio Mobility Coalition, formed by government and highway interests, favor both toll roads and indexing the gas tax.

"We support any combination of new revenues," Director Vic Boyer said. "Whatever addresses those funding gaps, we're fine."

San Antonio Toll Party, a group of grassroots activists, wants nontoll traffic fixes ranging from better timing of signal lights to higher gas taxes.

"That's what we've been about from the beginning, promoting nontolled transportation solutions," Director Terri Hall said. Indexing the gas tax "is certainly one of them."

Carona and House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, are working on legislation to index the gas tax and make other changes, including more oversight of tollways and privatization and stopping further diversions of gas taxes to nontransportation uses.

Some $800 million a year in gas taxes are drained away to other uses, Carona said Monday. Changes this session could reduce losses by $250 million to $400 million a year. But indexing the gas tax is necessary if the state is to cut back on toll projects, Carona said.

Not doing so is an invitation to privatize more toll-road projects, he said. While governments get millions of dollars in up-front cash, they agree to limit or pay extra for improvements to competing roads for 50 years and let companies collect billions in profits.


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