Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dissenting Bush appointees back private toll roads and tolled freeways

Study: Toll roads alone won't pay for U.S. highway needs

Bipartisan panel says Congress will need to increase gas tax

January 15, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

More and higher tolls won't be enough to pay for the nation's highway needs, a bipartisan study panel chaired by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation said today in a long-awaited report.

Instead, Congress will need to raise the federal gas tax by 25 to 40 cents a gallon over five years, according to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. The 12-member commission is a bipartisan panel formed by Congress in 2005 to rethink the way the nation builds and pays for its highways and transit systems.

"There is no free lunch," Jack Schenendorf, vice chairman of the commission, said at a news conference Tuesday morning. "No way to accomplish what we are talking about without spending money, and therefore you have to raise money. There is no way to avoid that."

Higher gas taxes, new taxes on transit tickets, and higher freight fees are also part of the panel's recommendations.

"We have concluded that our surface transportation system in America is at a cross roads. We have a looming crisis coming," Mr. Schenendorf said. "A failure to act would be catastrophic to this nation."

In addition to higher fuel taxes – a politically explosive recommendation – the report calls for substantial streamlining of the system used now to build highways, bridges and other major transportation projects.

The report recommends that the nation spend at least $225 billion a year for the next 50 years to improve its highways, passenger rail lines, and transit systems. That’s nearly triple what the nation spends now, including local, state and federal level, Mr. Schenendorf said.

Its conclusions represent an endorsement in part, and repudiation in part, of the approach championed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Mr. Perry and his appointees to the Texas Transportation Commission have resisted calls to raise state gas taxes, and instead pushed hard to expand the use of tolling to pay for new roads.

But Mr. Perry will find more support on another key aspect of his transportation agenda: Expanding the use of tolls to ease congestion and generate money to build other, free highways.

The report recommends that laws be changes to make it easier to toll both new and existing interstates, though only in metropolitan areas of more than 1 million residents.

On the issue of private companies building and operating toll roads, the recommendation is more mixed, and not as finely in line with Mr. Perry’s approach.

The report strongly supports the use of private firms to help pay for, and often operate, toll facilities. Such proposals are already alive and well in Texas, where the Spanish firm Cintra has a planning contract to develop the first phase of the massive Trans Texas Corridor, and where private firms are expected to bid later this year to build six new toll lanes on the LBJ Freeway in Dallas.

But the report also urges states impose strong restrictions on the contracts associated with such deals, something that advocates of so-called public-private partnerships say the companies will find onerous.

The recommendations are not binding. They are expected to be used as a starting point for Congress, which is set to debate calls for major reforms to the transportation program between now and 2009, when the current authorizing legislation expires. Every five years, Congress passes a sweeping transportation bill that sets overall policy.

Underlining how political contentious some of the proposals will be, all three members appointed by the Bush Administration issued a dissenting report that rejects gas-tax increases, Instead, they want the focus kept on private investment and higher tolls.

Hearings on the report are scheduled for tomorrow in the House, and for later this month in the Senate.


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