Friday, March 11, 2011

"What we have in this state right now is perpetual tolling..."

Bill would limit toll roads

March 11, 2011

Daily Court Review
Copyright 2011

Toll roads would become free public roads after they are paid for under a bill considered by the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday. The bill would also prevent toll road profits from being applied to future road projects. Senator Steve Ogden of Bryan sponsored the provision in 2003 that permitted tolling entities to charge extra money to generate surplus to build more roads. At the time, said Ogden, lawmakers didn’t think that Texans would support raising the gas tax to fund road construction. They saw toll revenue as a good alternative method for raising transportation funds. As it turned out, said Ogden, Texans were just as opposed to toll roads as they were to raising taxes.

Ogden’s bill, SB 363, would prevent a tolling entity from collecting a toll on a road once acquisition and construction costs have been paid off. Once that happens, the maintenance of the road would be turned over to the Department of Transportation, funded by gas tax revenue. Ogden said he thinks that once building costs are paid due, the tolls should go away. "What we have in this state right now is perpetual tolling," said Ogden. "Once the system is complete and paid for, people shouldn’t have to pay the toll."

The committee also looked at a bill that would set new criteria for how state transportation dollars are distributed regionally. Bill sponsor Plano Senator Florence Shapiro said the current funding allocation system doesn’t recognize the reality of transportation and congestion problems in Texas. "Urban congestion needs and rural statewide connectivity needs should not have to compete for the same revenue source because they have vastly different needs," she said.

Under current law, the state Transportation Commission decides how to spend highway money, but Shapiro said neither the Legislature nor the general public has a clear understanding of the standards the Commission uses to distribute these dollars. Her bill, SB 161, would require the Commission to draft new state planning rules. It would also divide current transportation funds into rural and urban pools, with each pool having different standards for allocation, based on the different needs of rural and urban planning. "We’re trying to ‘fair up’ the system," she said.

Both bills remain pending before the committee.

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