Sunday, February 24, 2008

Longview News-Journal editorials "don't sit well with the highway folks."

Is it their way or the highway?

February 24, 2008

Longview News-Journal
Copyright 2008

We held an impromptu editorial board meeting Friday to talk with several Texas Department of Transportation representatives, including one who was on the speakerphone.

We seldom hold such meetings on Friday afternoons because, quite frankly, we tend to be pretty busy getting ready for three days worth of publications so most of us can take the weekend off.

Our publisher, Gary Borders, agreed to the meeting because the TxDOT folks had some concerns about one of the editorials we published Thursday, a piece critical of the highway agency's pitch to build the new I-69 "NAFTA" highway as part of the Trans-Texas Corridor — the first leg of which Gov. Rick Perry wants to build as a public/private partnership.

The most tangible concerns raised by the TxDOT folks are addressed in a letter to the editor on the opposite page.

Our deepest concerns with the TTC concept of developing new or expanded interstate highway corridors through private developers, however, are not addressed.

It's not that TxDOT is trying to hide anything about the concept. It's just nettlesome that highway officials and Perry talk blithely about the concept, as if privatized toll roads are the only way we can address our state's future transportation needs.

The only other option, we are told, is to raise the state gas tax an unfathomable amount.

I am ready to believe that because of our long neglect of finding the proper way to fund Texas highway construction and maintenance, it would be difficult to raise gasoline taxes high enough to do the job now.

It's not at all surprising to find out that we are that far behind the curve when past lawmakers who were fearful of levying taxes to raise the necessary revenues for public education decided to dedicate a quarter of the gas tax to public education.

Yes, education is important enough that we need to fund it. So are Texas highways, especially when you consider the fact that our state has the most extensive network of state-maintained roads in the country.

Perry likes the idea of a public/private partnership because it allows him to propose and launch grand highway projects without levying the taxes needed to fund them. Instead, he would shift the funding to private developers who would then be authorized to levy tolls to recoup their costs and reap their profits.

The same people who pay gas taxes are the people who will pay the tolls. The two key differences is what those payments are called and how big they will be.

You see, that's the rub with a public/private partnership. In exchange for funding the construction and maintaining any toll road that becomes part of the TTC, a private developer will understandably want a return on its investment — a profit. We would expect nothing less.

Even if toll roads are the only way to build projects such as I-69, a public toll road would only be expected to recoup the cost of construction and operation. We would expect nothing more.

So we get our backs up a bit when elected leaders and highway officials speak glowingly about the benefits of turning a distinctly public responsibility over to a private contractor. Then we write editorials that don't sit well with the highway folks.

I have a feeling there are more of these meetings to come.

Pete Litterski is senior editor of the Longview News-Journal.

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