Guerra: Toll road debate follows the special interests in big-bucks lane

Read it here.

NOTE: Casteel’s numbers don’t tell the whole picture. From 1984-2004 the state gas tax revenues went up at the rate of 178% while population only grew 50%. These bureaucrats consistently tell half truths and mislead the public about why we’re in this mess and who is responsible for it. Increased growth brings increased tax revenues, period! We added more lane miles from 1990 to the year 2000 but commute times went up. If simply building more roads relieves congestion, then we shouldn’t be experiencing congestion woes. Our woes are largely due to poor planning at the City, County, and State levels. Read about it in my presentation to the Transportation Commission: here. Their own figures on the Comptroller’s web site and from government sources don’t lie!

Carlos Guerra: Toll road debate follows the special interests in big-bucks lane
Web Posted: 03/12/2006 12:00 AM CST
San Antonio Express-News

If Texans are rancorously debating toll roads — an issue likely to decide November’s governor’s election — there are four good reasons for it.

Texas’ population exploded during the 1990s, and the growth will continue for at least 25 years. International trade also increased traffic to and from Mexico.

And over that decade, highway funding shrunk so that now, more than half of the state’s gasoline taxes pay for maintenance of Texas’ enormous highway system.

But clearly, the biggest reason we’re debating toll roads is that Texans love to travel Texas’ miles and miles, and special interests want the big bucks from building multibillion-dollar highways, and even bigger bucks from charging people to drive on them over the next 50 to 99 years.

Ric Williamson, head of the Texas Transportation Commission, is often vilified for asserting that within our lifetime most Texas highways will be toll roads. Almost equally quoted is the Hobson’s choice he offered: “It’s either toll roads, slow roads or no roads.”

But are those our only real choices? Of course not.

This issue is about cronyism and big bucks, multidecade concessions, and which international corporation will get them, that’s all.

David Casteel is the Texas Department of Transportation’s district engineer for the San Antonio and Laredo districts. TxDOT, he emphasizes, doesn’t write Texas’ public policies regarding highways, or even transportation. It takes orders from the Legislature and the Texas Transportation Commission, and increasingly, orders from the metropolitan planning organizations that now determine how transportation resources are spent locally.

Additionally, TxDOT’s newest bosses are new regional mobility authorities that the Legislature empowered to decide where toll roads are built, by whom, and how much they should toll.

Casteel says that more roadway lane miles are needed now, and that population and traffic growth have overtaken TxDOT’s budget, which is largely funded by a state tax on gasoline.

“We were on a pay-as-you go system, so our answer was wait, wait, wait and when we get the money we will build your road,” he says. “But in that time, congestion got worse; we have one of the fastest rates of growth for congestion.”

The biggest reason Texas can’t keep up with increased traffic is that TxDOT’S funding hasn’t kept up with population growth or even inflation, he says, and gas taxes have been raided during lean years to balance budgets.

“The last time the gas tax was raised was in 1991, when it was raised a nickel (to 20 cents per gallon) and it wasn’t indexed to inflation,” Casteel says.

“During the past 25 years, at the state level, more than $10 billion has been used from the state gas tax for other purposes, and during that time, population increased 67 percent in Texas and we were only able to add 8 percent more lane miles, so the math is pretty simple.”

But is tolling 90 percent of our new and existing highways the answer?

In future columns, we will explore if a higher gasoline tax is better than tolls computed per-mile and increased as congestion rises; if absolutely necessary toll roads shouldn’t be owned by the state instead of a private concern; and why privately operated toll road deals will guarantee that toll-free roads, by contract, will be left to deteriorate and virtually vanish.

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail cguerra@express-news.net.

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