Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"A typical commuter might average $10 a day in tolls... with very few alternative routes to escape them."

It's all too easy to create a future lined with tollbooths


By O.K. Carter
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

Although stories about toll roads seem to pop up every week now, a lot of Texans just don't seem to get the drift of what's happening.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, simplified things a bit last week during a luncheon speech to the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.

If the trend toward toll-road proliferation continues unabated, Carona visualizes a not-too-distant future in which a typical commuter might average $10 a day in tolls. And with very few alternative routes to escape them.

"We're not talking about the kind of tolls that go away when a road is paid off, either," he said. "They're toll roads forever."

Though Carona, chairman of the Senate transportation committee, knows that a modest boost in gasoline taxes will never be popular, he calculates that in the end it would be much cheaper than irreversible toll-road mania.

But never mind that. Most of the more than 80 major road projects in the works in Texas, he said, are being contemplated as toll-road projects. Fourteen are in this region alone.

The problem is that Texas is a big, fast-growing state with far more transportation needs than money to fund them, although there are provisos to this general statement. It would help, for instance, if lawmakers didn't siphon off gasoline tax money for other purposes. Too, the Texas Department of Transportation has the authority to borrow a lot more money for road projects but has chosen not to. The governor also seems bent on installing a more intensive user-pay, user-benefit system.

The theory is that the people who benefit from a service should pay for it.

Think of it like a public golf course greens fee, only it's for using a highway. You don't use it, you don't pay for it. Sounds fair, right? The minimum-wage guy who needs to get to work might have a different view.

There's another benefit to a toll road as well, which is that with a source of funding assured, it can be built with reasonable dispatch.

Once upon a time, the stretch of Interstate 30 between Fort Worth and Dallas was built as a toll road - dubbed the DFW Turnpike - though the concept then was somewhat different from what's occurring in Texas now.

For one thing, voters approved that turnpike project, albeit with a proviso: When the road was paid for it would become free.

Does anyone out there recollect voting for any toll roads in the last few decades? No? That's because there was no such vote.

New toll roads remain toll roads. Forever.

And finally, a funny thing happened on the road to toll-road mania. The Transportation Department decided that granting contracts for such projects should have a value, which meant that the agency should be paid upfront for the right to build them.

That's why privatization of toll roads has become popular. Not only do the roads get built in a hurry, the state can collect hundreds of millions of dollars in what amounts to purchase-rights fees.

That money can then be invested in other road projects. Or whatever.

I know. You don't remember voting for that either.

Consider Texas 161, a soon-to-be-built toll road in Grand Prairie that parallels Texas 360 and which will take a lot of pressure off 360. The Transportation Department initially wanted a private builder because it felt it could reap a windfall of more than $1 billion for the rights. In the end, the nonprofit North Texas Tollway Authority was awarded the project, but it will still pay the state $458 million.

True, the money will be used for other North Texas road projects, but this stretches the user-benefit fee idea considerably. By the time the authority pays interest charges over decades, it will mean that close to $1 billion more will have to be paid in tolls on a 10-mile stretch of road.

Why do local elected officials stand for this? Because they want those road projects desperately. And they want them now.

What can you do? Start by buying a TollTag. It's cheaper. And buy a hybrid car.



© 2008 Fort Worth Star-Telegram: www.star-telegram.com

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE