Friday, July 20, 2007

"Yet another unbridled tax and another tool to intrude on privacy by tracking the movements of vehicles."

A desire to keep the rates low could torpedo toll road goals


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Motorists should pay higher fees on Texas toll roads, including those planned for San Antonio, but even that won't be enough to fix growing traffic problems, a new report says.

The trouble is local toll agencies don't want to set rates any higher than needed to cover financing of their own roads, says the draft audit by Dye Management Group Inc., which was presented this week to the Texas Transportation Commission.

So not enough profit is being raised to fund other projects, the executive summary says. Drivers pay about 10 to 15 cents a mile on tollways in Dallas, Houston and Austin.

"Tolls charged by local authorities are lower than studies indicate that their customers would be willing to pay," it states. "As a result, congestion goals will not be met."

The audit, commissioned by the Texas Department of Transportation, which the Transportation Commission oversees, mirrors much of what officials have been saying for years.

"It just confirms the emergency situation that we're in," said Hope Andrade, a commissioner from San Antonio. "We can no longer support toll rates that are not market value."

Keeping rates "reasonable" is one reason why the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority last month took over planned toll lanes on 47 miles of U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 on the North Side.

But forcing such local agencies to maximize profits, or at least get healthy returns, is why a provision was slipped into a law last spring that requires state and local officials to agree on toll rates for new projects.

Reasonable rates and market rates are not necessarily at odds, since some surplus is good if used on other needed projects, said Bill Thornton, chairman of the Mobility Authority.

But that still leaves room for debate on how high toll fees should be.

"I do not see conflict in the debate," he said. "I see it as a healthy discussion."

Those differing views could gel, or not, later this summer when a market valuation is finished for the U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 toll system.

Toll critics see the valuation as a way for government to use its monopoly on roads to squeeze money out of motorists trapped in congestion.

"Anybody can make money off of that," said Terri Hall of San Antonio Toll Party. "It's really for unlimited runaway taxation of the likes we've never seen before."

Nevertheless, charging at or near market rates for tolls won't be enough, the report says.

For one thing, toll roads are mainly solutions for big cities, since that's where the congestion is. And erosion of gas taxes will escalate because of rising construction inflation and more cars getting better mileage or using alternate fuels.

A long-term answer is to switch from a tax on gas to a tax on how much people drive, called a vehicle miles traveled charge or VMT charge. Oregon finished testing such a system in March and a report is due this summer.

"Texas needs to lay the groundwork to move to a VMT charge over the next 20 years," the report says.

Andrade agreed that a VMT charge should be looked at.

"We're at a point when we must explore everything," she said. "That would be difficult but not impossible."

Hall said that would hand government yet another unbridled tax as well as another tool to intrude on privacy by tracking the movements of vehicles.

"We knew that was coming all along," she said.

Texas still needs to build more toll roads and lease what they can to private operators, the report says. The Dye Management report is one of five audits that will be a starting point for a sunset review of TxDOT, which the Legislature is scheduled to wrap up in its 2009 session.


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