Monday, April 21, 2008

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson: "[Ric Williamson's] death was a bigger loss for this state than anything."

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson: Tolls are here to stay


Michael Lindenberger
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Toll roads are going to be part of North Texas' future -- and the country's -- whether drivers, or even lawmakers, like it or not.

That was one message delivered Monday morning by U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, in an address to the Transportation Forum in Austin, an annual confab for more than 1,000 planners, road-builders, and assorted money people.

"Let's face the real facts, there is not enough money," Rep. Johnson said. With the country's infrastructure -- including water pipes, sewers, roads, bridges and more -- in bad repair, she said the federal government is going to be looking for every penny it can find to foot the looming bills.

So when it comes to building roads, the answer is going to have to include more toll roads -- not just here, but all across the USA, she said. "Our road capacity has to increase, and I came to realize that without new tolls, we aren't going to get any more roads at all."

Rep. Johnson, a Democrat and the state's most powerful House member on transportation issues, said she spoke often Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson before his death in December. Mr. Williamson had convinced her to give toll roads -- and private toll contracts like the one Cintra had initially won to build State Highway 121 -- a second look.

She's now convinced that both tools are essential for America to pay for its aging infrastructure, and to build new roads and other facilities to cope with population growth in areas like Dallas.

"We Texans don't like change too well," she said. "And a lot of us get sort of up in arms over the idea of new tolls. But there is no other way."

The House Transportation committee chairman, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., opposes private tolls, she said, but she said in recent weeks Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal., has made the issue her own. "We've had several meetings with the Speaker and with people from Wall Street, trying to learn how we can best go about bringing more private money to help us with our building needs."

In the meantime, she said, she continues to press her colleagues to raise the gas tax by at least 5 cents a gallon, and maybe more. She said the state, too, will have to consider an increase if it wants to end the money crisis that has threatened to shortchange its infrastructure program.

So far, neither Gov. Rick Perry nor the Legislature has shown little interest in doing so.

Mr. Williamson last year had begun to speak about the possibility of indexing the current state gas tax to inflation -- a move that would have increased it every year.

But with his death, the push from TxDOT to encourage a state gas tax increase is far less certain.

Rep. Johnson said she's missed Williamson enormously, despite their political differences. "His death was a bigger loss for this state than anything," she said.

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