Friday, August 31, 2007

"Expect your home values to drop as nobody will want to live in the unaffordable toll road capitol of the world."

CAMPO: tolls now likely in Oak Hill


Ann Fowler
Oak Hill Gazette
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN - After months of outwardly wavering about the Phase II toll plan for Austin --including the 'Y'--at the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) Transportation Policy Board on Monday admitted that tolls were likely after all.

Oak Hill resident Carol Cespedes said, "TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) has been notably coy about whether these roads-- which include 290/71 West-- are necessarily toll roads. But our Travis County Commissioner, Gerald Daugherty, asked TxDOT if 'the TIP is only going to be done if we toll these roads?' The answer was yes. To meet the cost of these 12-lane structures, TxDOT proposes a funding package that includes $540 million in toll bonds and $211 million in Texas Transportation Commission funds designated for toll roads."

Cespedes is a member of Fix290, a grassroots group advocating a parkway design for the Hwy. 290/71 project. That design, with its lack of frontage roads and smaller footprint is not conducive to tolling. If CAMPO says yes to tolls, they are essentially saying no to a parkway. But Cespedes and others feel that tolls would not be needed if the lower cost parkway alternative was built.

Travis County Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt told the Gazette, "The political reality, given the federal and state unwillingness to raise the gas tax or contemplate any other broad based user tax, is that some desperately needed stretches of pavement in Travis County will be constructed, maintained and operated in some measure on toll taxes."

But not everyone agrees with the inevitability of tolls for Oak Hill.

Sal Costello, founder of the Austin Toll Party, told the Gazette, "If enough people show up at the next CAMPO meeting at the Capitol on September 10 at 6 p.m. , ready to tar and feather those so called representatives that purport to represent us, I believe we can stop them from tolling our Oak Hill public highways.

"No city in the country has ever shifted a freeway to a tollway, and we need to get off the couch and show up to fight for what is already ours. Forcing drivers to pay a toll to drive a public expressway is unforgivable."

Elected officials, like [Travis County] Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, must understand that they work for us, not the special interests. Our organization will focus on removing those stubborn officials who have disregarded the overwhelming opposition to this double tax toll scheme. "

State and federal legislators have left local officials in a quandary. It could be just coincidence that the toll threat was removed, or at least delayed, at the start of the biennial legislative session, thus keeping anti-toll groups at bay until well after the session had ended. With no anti-toll turmoil to be concerned with, legislators failed to raise gasoline taxes to meet or in any way address Texas' transportation funding needs.

Texas' federal legislators have not stepped up to the plate either. At the recent CAMPO community meeting held at Covington Middle School, Richard Reeves pointed out that Texans actually lose money on the federal gasoline taxes they pay. "We get back only 73 cents of every dollar we send to the federal government," he said.

At that same CAMPO meeting, some spoke in favor of tolls because they saw it as the only way the Oak Hill project could be built and paid for.

Brandon Janes, chair of the transportation committee of Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, said, "We all understand this costs money. We all understand that there's not adequate public funds available for doing it. To us, the notion of using user fees, including managed lanes and toll roads, are the only fair and equitable way of doing this. Nobody likes paying taxes. Nobody likes paying tolls but we've got to have the roads and it seems to us having the user actually pay for the cost of those roads is a fair and equitable way of financing this."

Driftwood resident Peter Stern said toll roads are indeed a good deal for the company collecting the money.

He said, "Toll roads may first appear to increase revenue for road building and maintenance, however tolls are not cost-effective when 80 percent off the top goes back to the company managing the toll projects and plazas. Also, contracts with private companies generally range from 50 to 79 years, which means that toll taxes will continue to be paid by our children's grandchildren. Toll taxations may be increased at any time by the private company and/or TxDOT without gaining prior approval by the legislature or via a public election. They become infinite taxes. "

And the likelihood of increasing tolls is significantly more likely on roads with electronic tolls, and TxDOT officials have said that if roads in Oak Hill are tolled, it would be with electronic tolling, not toll booths.

Amy Finkelstein, Associate Professor of Economics at MIT, studied the differences between the two collection methods and reported, "Unlike manual toll collection, in which the driver must hand over cash at the toll collection plaza, electronic toll collection automatically debits the toll amount as the car drives through the toll plaza, thereby plausibly decreasing the salience of the toll. I find robust evidence that toll rates increase following the adoption of electronic toll collection. My estimates suggest that, in steady state, toll rates are 20 to 40 percent higher than they would have been without electronic toll collection."

Although the Hwy. 71 segment is less than a mile, it, too, is planned as a tolled road. But Eckhardt said, "I don't think creating a minimum length for the toll roads will be of benefit. The basis of my opposition to the current toll plan is due to the tax inequity it creates. Under the gas tax system, Commuter A and Commuter B who both travel the same distance in the same car pay the same gas tax. Under the toll tax system, Commuter A may be paying gas tax only while Commuter B pays gas tax and toll tax. The length of a toll road has no bearing on that kind of inequity."

Costello also feels roadway length is not part of the equation. He said flatly, "No freeway should ever be tolled. Special interests who have pushed this scheme can go sell their swampland elsewhere. The 'Y' has already been promised and funded as a freeway."

If the road improvements in Oak Hill do, in fact, get tolled, Eckhardt has an idea. She said, "I think there's traction for the idea of dedicating any excess revenue created by a specific toll road exclusively to the commuter corridor in which the toll road is located. That dedicated revenue would be used for improved alternatives for the same commuters that are paying the tolls-- rapid bus, rail, HOV [high occupancy vehicle] lanes, improved arterial connections. Additionally, the excess would be used to benefit the communities along the toll roads-- sidewalks, trails, trees, sound walls. By dedicating the excess revenue to the corridor in which it is generated, the tax inequity of the tolling system is diminished though not eliminated."

But Costello is not prepared to concede Oak Hill to tolls. "Everyone needs to go to the CAMPO meeting at the Capitol on September 10 at 6 p.m. or pay and pay and pay," he said. "And expect your home values to drop as nobody will want to live in the unaffordable toll road capitol of the world."

The September 10 CAMPO Transportation Policy Board meeting will be held at the State Capitol in the Auditorium, E1.004, at 6 p.m.

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