"Many of my constituents have a deep distrust of government and these actions by the commission only confirm that distrust."
Stop spending tax funds on toll roads
By RICHARD MORRISON
Texas stands to receive $2.25 billion in transportation funding from the federal stimulus program. This funding is critical to maintain and upgrade our transportation infrastructure. It is also critical to stimulate the Texas economy. It will create jobs, from the engineers who design these roads to the construction crews who build them.
The Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, has recommended that the East Region, which includes Beaumont, Bryan, Houston and Lufkin, receive $431,516,770 for transportation projects. Of this amount, more than 53 percent, or $231 million, will be spent on the construction of toll roads.
These recommendations ignore the will of ordinary Texans who are opposed to our tax dollars being spent on toll roads and see these schemes as a type of double taxation. They also ignore the federal law that requires these funds to be spent in economically distressed areas. The small number of projects in economically distressed areas added to the stimulus list on Thursday do not satisfy the federal requirements.
Over the last ten years, Fort Bend County has consistently been one of the fastest growing counties in the country. As a county commissioner in Fort Bend, I am on the front lines of mobility issues on a daily basis. Many of my constituents have a deep distrust of government and these actions by the commission only confirm that distrust. After the commission’s recommendations, I have been asked on numerous occasions why tax dollars will be spent on a road that will then be tolled. This is a valid question that Gov. Rick Perry should be required to answer.
Unfortunately, Gov. Perry has taken the position that the preferred method of financing our public roads in Texas is through tolls. And many of our current mobility projects have been designed according to this policy.
Tolling the Grand Parkway is a prime example of the shortsightedness of the commission and our regional planners. Powerful interests with goals other than mobility have been pushing this “outer-loop” for 30 years and ignoring the other long-term mobility needs of the area. As a result, Segment E of the parkway is one of the few “shovel-ready” projects in the Houston-Galveston area.
Now this shortsightedness is finally bearing fruit. If Segment E is funded from the stimulus money and finally constructed, exorbitant tolls from this segment will be used to finance and construct the remaining segments in Liberty, Montgomery, Brazoria, Chambers and Galveston counties. That means the citizens of Fort Bend County and northwest Harris County will be paying for those segments even though they never drive on them.
From a mobility standpoint, many of these remaining segments are useless. Miles and miles of the remaining pieces will cross open prairie where no one lives, will have little or no effect on traffic and are not needed. When our transportation dollars from Washington are desperately needed to get people to and from our population centers, it only seems reasonable that the federal stimulus money should be spent on mobility projects that are actually needed.
A solution to this ridiculous dilemma over how to pay for road building is for Gov. Perry to show some courage and demand that the Legislature index the gasoline tax to inflation. After all, the gasoline tax is one of the fairer taxes: The more you drive, the more you pay.
Of course, if the Legislature decides to pass this tax, it must also ensure that all of the tax revenue raised from gasoline taxes will be spent on roads. That revenue should no longer be raided for other needs of the state.
Gov. Perry should take a leadership role in making sure this happens. It will take courage, but it is the right thing for Texas.
Morrison, a Democrat elected in 2008, is the county commissioner of Precinct 1 in Fort Bend County. Segment C of the Grand Parkway is proposed to be located in his precinct.
© 2009 Houston Chronicle: www.chron.com
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