Friday, April 06, 2007

"There's no reason that Texans must become slaves to toll roads."

The toll vs. the tax


By Jack Z. Smith
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

The raging controversy over transportation funding and toll roads isn't limited to Texas.

It's increasingly becoming a nationwide issue, as reported by Eric Kelderman on the Web site, which tracks issues facing state governments.

As Kelderman noted, the trend toward growing reliance on toll roads for funding new and expanded highways has become a hot-button issue not only in Texas but also in other states such as Indiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Colorado. An important ancillary issue is whether toll roads should be operated and maintained by private firms whose chief motivation is making money.

There's a simple, judicious way to avoid becoming addicted to toll roads: Individual states that are strapped for transportation dollars should raise their gasoline tax. Congress also should raise the federal gasoline tax.

Both state and federal gas taxes also should be indexed for inflation to keep pace with rising road-building costs.

For Texas, a sizable increase in the state and federal gas taxes would go an enormous way toward meeting the state's long-term transportation needs. We still would need some new toll roads, especially in the near term. But higher gas taxes could sharply reduce the need for toll roads.

The state gas tax should be boosted substantially, with an up-front increase of perhaps 8 to 10 cents a gallon, coupled with inflation-indexed increases going forward. The 20-cents-per-gallon tax hasn't been raised since 1991. Its buying power has been eroded greatly by a strong rise in road-building costs. That increase has been particularly pronounced in congested urban areas, where the need for more road capacity is most severe.

The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn't been changed since 1993, and its funding capability also has been greatly diminished. Meanwhile, maintenance needs have escalated on the aging interstate highway system birthed in the 1950s. The federal tax should be raised in similar fashion to Texas' tax.

Call me conservative and old-fashioned, but I generally prefer a traditional "pay-as-you-go" concept for Texas roads. I'm not keen on the idea of paying tolls for 50 years or more on a highway.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, is sponsoring a bill to index Texas' gas tax to inflation. But there's no guarantee that it will get through the Legislature, which dreads the mere mention of any tax increase, no matter how logical and needed it is.

In Texas, much of the mania for toll roads has been generated by Republican elected officials who made pledges to never support any tax increase. That's a foolish vow for any politician, given needs that might arise. It's especially stupid in the case of the gas tax, because inflation has greatly eroded its funding capacity. In major metropolitan areas, costs just to acquire highway right of way have skyrocketed.

One thing I like about the gas tax is that it provides a direct financial incentive for energy conservation, which reduces our reliance on foreign oil, air pollution and emissions of carbon dioxide that are believed to contribute to global warming. Those who drive small, fuel-efficient cars consume less gasoline, and hence pay less gas taxes, than those who drive gas-gulpers the same number of miles.

I'm not opposed to toll roads in general. The old Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike (now Interstate 30) and Dallas North Tollway were worthy ventures. I support the Southwest Parkway project designed to ease congestion in southwest Fort Worth. I also think, given the current crisis in transportation funding for North Central Texas, that a proposed moratorium on toll road projects is a bad idea and that some toll roads definitely will be needed quickly.

Nevertheless, there's no reason that Texans must become slaves to toll roads. We can avert toll mania if we raise state and federal gas taxes to help compensate for the ravages of a decade and a half of inflation in road-building costs.

Jack Z. Smith is a Star-Telegram editorial writer. 817-390-7724

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