Sunday, September 16, 2007

"The proposal has won almost unanimous rejection"

Paying twice

Making paid-for interstate highways into toll roads is unpalatable to nearly all Texans.

Sept. 15, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Under Gov. Rick Perry's direction, the Texas Department of Transportation is pursuing a toll road program that few Texans want. Department officials are misguided if they think a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign will make the proposed toll roads more palatable.

At the core of the program are the Trans-Texas Corridors. Once a promising idea to meet the state's need for more highways, railroads and pipelines, the first leg turns out to be a private venture over which the state will cede control for decades. Designed to turn a profit for private investors, the project will cost users more than it would if the state built it.

This year the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT's governing board, came up with an even more unpopular notion: It is asking Congress to allow Texas to buy sections of interstate highway, lease them to private operators and charge tolls.

The proposal, little noticed when it was announced in February, has won almost unanimous rejection. Key legislative leaders said neither they nor the Legislature could support it. Led by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and joined by Sen. John Cornyn, the U.S. Senate passed legislation banning the sale of interstate highways for toll roads.

In Houston, former Harris County District Clerk Charles Bacarisse, a Republican candidate for county judge, condemned the proposal, stating that Houston-area commuters already pay too much.

State highway officials say they need to spend between $7 million and $9 million to educate Texans about the benefits of paying twice for the same road and ceding state control of highways to private investors for decades. TxDOT would do better to change its tradition of keeping public information from the public unless forced by law or the attorney general to reveal it. That approach would actually save money, as it is cheaper to disclose information than to go through the bureaucratic steps necessary to keep it secret.

As was the case in Harris County, toll roads can not only provide more miles of pavement, but also capital for other projects. The intolerable flaw in TxDOT's proposal is that motorists would be forced to pay for roads they had already paid for with their gasoline taxes.

Texas and the federal government need to make robust investments in mobility to accommodate economic and population growth. However, history shows that building more and more highways will not reduce congestion. On every widened highway, such as the Katy Freeway, traffic will inevitably increase to capacity and beyond.

In addition to roads, Texas needs more mass transit and high-speed, intercity passenger rail service. Whatever objections opponents have raised to alternatives to single-passenger commutes, they have not been able to claim that transit patrons and taxpayers had to pay twice for the same service.

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