Hutchison decries privatized toll roads, tolls on existing highways

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It’s All About Fairness to Taxpayers, Drivers
By U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
May 22, 2009

Maintaining and improving transportation infrastructure in Texas has become nearly as daunting a proposition as driving down Loop 410 at rush hour. San Antonio and Texas as a whole have fast-growing populations, but face the challenge of crumbling and overstressed highways and consistent funding shortfalls. Clearly, something’s got to give, and it can’t be the quality of our roads – or fairness to Texas taxpayers. As we work to meet our transportation needs, we must think broadly and avoid band-aid solutions that will ultimately exacerbate the problem.Recently, there have been renewed calls for tolls on highways that have already been built and paid for with federal tax dollars. I believe taxing Americans twice for the same asset is fundamentally unfair, and I oppose any effort to place tolls on existing interstate highways.

Double taxation is not the only concern. Overemphasis on tolling has serious implications for community safety and local infrastructure. Studies show that motorists will change their driving patterns to bypass the tolls. This will redirect traffic from our highways to remaining free roads, and, in turn, congest our local streets, compromise neighborhood safety, and overburden small capacity infrastructure.

Furthermore, tolls on existing interstates will divert truck traffic to other roads. A recent study predicted that a 25-cent-per-mile toll on an interstate highway would cause nearly half the trucks to divert to other routes. Many of our communities are not equipped to handle heavy commercial traffic, and the safety of local drivers could be put at risk by the increased presence of trucks on small roads.

Today, I introduced legislation to prevent tolling of existing free federal highways, bridges, or tunnels built with federal funding, so that taxpayers are not taxed to use a road for which they’ve already paid. I’m for more highways and even tolls, when proposed the right way. The legislation does not prohibit tolls on new construction. If local communities and states want to cooperatively construct a toll road, they should be able to do so. If the state or community wants to expand their highways and toll for building new lanes, they can choose that alternative. In these situations, the taxpayers know exactly what they are getting. Many times a vote is required to approve these projects, but in any case, the taxpayers can hold the relevant officials accountable.

There has also been discussion in Texas and elsewhere of states attempting to purchase highways from the federal government and place them under state ownership or lease them to foreign investors for the purpose of tolling them. This is also an ill-conceived proposal that fails to address our underlying transportation challenges.

The debate on tolling illuminates the broader need to reform the federal highway program. Its antiquated funding formula, which has made Texas a donor state, is no longer serving the best interests of each state and its motorists. Our national transportation mission should evolve to maintaining and improving infrastructure, so that states don’t resort to band-aid solutions, such as tolling existing freeways.

In April, I introduced a bill that would permit states to opt out of the federal highway program and instead be rebated federal fuel taxes collected within their borders. Today, Texas receives 92 cents back for every dollar sent to Washington, up from 76 cents from when I came to the Senate. My bill would allow Texas to finally see 100 percent of its gas tax dollars, and ensure all of our funds could be used to improve transportation in Texas.

Washington shouldn’t take Texas tax dollars and send them to other states. Likewise, Texans shouldn’t be charged time and time again to drive on roads they already paid for with their hard earned tax dollars.

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