Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Faith-Based Tolling

Toll-road panel, experts show no fear of rising gas prices


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

It may be a blip or it may be a slip, but a recent drop in driving due to higher gas prices won't last long, experts said during a toll-road panel hearing Tuesday.

The days of cheap oil and gas are gone, but Americans will find ways to conserve and keep driving like there's no tomorrow for decades to come, they agreed.

That means fast-growing states such as Texas will need a lot more road lanes, officials told the Legislative Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Projects, which held a public hearing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

And by the time dwindling supplies pull the curtain on the oil age, technological breakthroughs could be rushing in to save the nation's car culture.

“We desperately need the highway infrastructure, regardless of what is fueling the vehicles,” Texas Railroad Commission member Elizabeth Ames Jones told the committee. “Even 50 years from now, I think there will still be vehicles and they will have tires.”

Committee members, directed by a 2007 tolling law to study the merits and pitfalls of privatization and report to the Legislature next year, wanted to know how oil and gas prices could affect toll-road contracts that can last half a century.

With regular-grade gasoline pushing past $4 a gallon in June, breaking the inflation-adjusted record set in March 1981 by more than 50 cents, Americans have cooled their driving passion.

Travel on U.S. roads dropped last year for the first time in 27 years, Federal Highway Administration data show, and stumbled 2.1 percent through April. A 4.3 percent decline in March was the largest seen since 1942, when the agency began issuing monthly driving reports.

Texas drivers also pulled back, logging 4.9 percent fewer miles in March and 1.5 percent fewer in April.

But the toll panel and those testifying showed no fear.

Committee member Robert Poole, a free-market advocate who has pushed private financing of toll roads for two decades, described the drop in driving as a “slip.”

Motorists will buy smaller and more fuel-efficient cars to ease the pinch, he said, though that will cut into gas-tax revenues used to build roads.

University of Texas at Austin Professor William Fisher, a former state geologist who addressed the committee, called the slump in driving a “blip.”

Experts hotly debate when global oil production will peak and slide, with some saying it's happening now and others estimating it's four decades away, but Fisher said there's plenty of time for technologies to catch up and satisfy a growing hunger for energy.

He also said crude oil, which topped $147 a barrel two weeks ago, will surely come down, maybe even below $100.

“We're talking about some high oil, but it doesn't have to be $140 a barrel, that's for sure,” the professor said.

Texas Transportation Institute researcher David Ellis told the committee that the will to drive, especially to get to work, is resilient to high gas prices. While Texans are driving less this year, the change is small compared with energy prices zooming up 46 percent.

“These things kind of return to something like normal,” he assured the panel.

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