Monday, May 07, 2007

"Road building used to be fairly simple."

Road building becomes much more convoluted

May 6, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Except for the engineering part, road building used to be fairly simple:

Washington sent fuel tax dollars to the states and watched to make sure they were spent on needed projects with acceptable impacts on humans and the rest of nature. Local governments acting through regional planning organizations (here, the Houston-Galveston Area Council) got a say in the matter, too.

The three-tier process gave each party a role and has worked pretty well, but that way of doing business is changing:
  • Several years ago, the Texas Transportation Commission under Gov. Rick Perry and chairman Ric Williamson announced that, because tax revenues could not cover all the state's growing highway needs, nearly all new highways in Texas will have to be paid for with tolls.
The welcome mat was rolled out for private companies, including overseas ones, to build and operate toll roads under long-term leases that could include clauses protecting investors from competition.
  • A grass-roots uproar, brewing since the announcement, broke out in 2005 against the Texas Department of Transportation's plan to have a Spanish-led consortium, Cintra-Zachry, build Trans-Texas Corridor 35 — a mega-tollway and rail route from Oklahoma to Mexico. The company would pay TxDOT up front for the right to operate the facility for 50 years and keep the profits.
  • The backlash flexed its muscles in the current Legislature, which voted for a two-year halt to such mammoth toll road contracts and to shift road-building powers from the state to local governments. One bill would require TxDOT to allow local authorities to use right of way for free to build and operate toll projects.
  • On April 26, the Federal Highway Administration notified TxDOT that some of the legislation "appears to run afoul of federal law or regulation."
The FHWA advised that any state right of way purchased, even in part, with federal funds may not be given away, although the state may sell or lease it at fair market value.
  • On April 23, TxDOT officials in Austin advised their local district offices that the agency will be shifting funds from construction to maintenance. In effect, this will transfer dollars from urban areas to rural ones and reduce Houston's share of the total, said Alan Clark, who directs transportation planning at H-GAC.
  • On April 27, the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council approved a list of tolled and non-tolled projects that the county and the local TxDOT office have agreed to consider building jointly by 2025.
Under a tentative agreement, TxDOT would let the Harris County Toll Road Authority build and collect tolls on state right of way, paying a share to TxDOT. H-GAC's Clark said such an arrangement is "all the more critical" in view of TxDOT's announced intent to reduce road funding in Houston, and will "generate most of the money we have for major mobility projects in the future."

County officials said it would keep local road dollars in the Houston area and avoid ceding control of local roads to private or overseas interests.
  • Advocacy groups including the Citizens Transportation Coalition and Gulf Coast Institute expressed concern that by funding projects with tolls instead of taxes, TxDOT and HCTRA could sidestep the environmental review and public input processes required when federal dollars are spent. Clark said he does not share those concerns.
Although HCTRA may build and operate a toll road, he said, the entire process up to the point of construction would go through TxDOT and FHWA and would be subject to their regulations.

"The only time in which we don't have to follow all those steps," Clark said, "is when a project is not on a state right of way and does not have any substantive connections to things like interstate highways or other major freeways, and does not have any federal money in it."
  • Finally, a Texas Transportation Institute report in November cast doubt on the need for the state to rely so heavily on tolls at all.
The report by the think tank at Perry's alma mater, Texas A&M, concluded that raising fuel taxes 8 cents a gallon and indexing them to the cost of road building would pay for all the new roads needed in the state's eight biggest metro areas for the next 25 years.

Toll roads do one thing very well: They put the cost on the users. But not everyone can afford to pay them, so Harris County used to have a policy of ensuring that its toll roads had frontage lanes or other free alternatives nearby.

The long-term solution statewide might be something like that: a locally operated toll road component and a "free" alternative paid for with a cost-indexed fuel tax, with both parts using state right of way and following the established federal process.

Anyone have a better idea?

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