Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Why should stimulus dollars be spent on roads that will be tolled?"

Grand Parkway snarl

Use tolls, not stimulus funds


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2009

Traffic alert: There’s a major collision directly ahead on the Grand Parkway — on an unbuilt portion of Houston’s outer loop, no less.

OK. It’s not a real-life wreck. More of a philosophical pile-up. It’s shaping up over a fundamental question: Should federal stimulus dollars be spent on a portion of the Grand Parkway that is scheduled to operate as a toll road?

We say no. Emphatically.

It seems clear that a toll road should be funded by … tolls.

Fees collected from users should foot the bills for these pay-to-drive roadways, which have come into ever-increasing favor across Texas. Funds to build them should not come from a huge pot of found money such as the stimulus. Those dollars can be put to better use on projects that are equally as necessary as the toll roads but which don’t come equipped with their own built-in revenue stream.

So far, the state of Texas is saying otherwise. Texas is supposed to receive $2.25 billion from the much-anticipated federal stimulus package recently signed into law by President Barack Obama. Of this windfall, approximately 20 percent, or $432 million, has been slated by state transportation officials to be spent in the East Region, which includes the Houston area. More than half of this amount — or $231 million — is scheduled to be spent on construction of toll roads, including a portion of the Grand Parkway to be built in Fort Bend County.

Fort Bend County Commissioner Richard Morrison has rightly objected to this method. We share several of Morrison’s concerns.

Morrison’s straightforward question is: Why should stimulus dollars be spent on roads that will be tolled? Doesn’t that mean Fort Bend taxpayers are being double taxed? These are questions that deserve answers, perhaps from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has pushed toll roads as a solution to the state’s traffic congestion troubles.

Morrison’s specific concern is that tolls collected from a portion of the Grand Parkway in Fort Bend County built with stimulus funds will be used to pay for expansion of the outer loop in other areas where Fort Bend drivers will never go.

That may or may not be entirely the case, but he raises a good point. Fort Bend is one of the nation’s fastest growing areas, with no shortage of deserving projects for stimulus dollars. But, sorry, a toll road isn’t one of them.

The state of Texas should do everything in its power to capture those dollars being offered in the federal stimulus package. We have no shortage of worthy projects.

But we already have a tested way to pay for toll roads. Let’s not mess with that.

© 2009 Houston Chronice:

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