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Charging Texans an extra 15 cents to 75 cents per mile to get to work, isn't fiscally conservative or sustainable. Taking away existing free roads by slapping tolls on them and building those toll projects with tax & fee money, so the road is 100% paid for, is highway robbery. No one should have to pay a toll to drive on it, period. Ebullient politicians gleefully announced their double tax rip-off. Texas doesn't have a road policy -- it has tolls, tolls, tolls by default and lack of leadership.
Those who have tried to solve the problem with higher taxes, get cut-off at the knees, yet what are tolls if not a Texas-sized tax increase -- by unelected boards to boot? Tolls are the MOST expensive and unaccountable way to fund roads. It's time for government to tighten its belt. Texans are sick and tired of being asked to bail out our politicians from their bad decisions and their refusal to properly fund a core function of government -- building roads!
Wear: If all else fails (politically), toll
By Ben Wear
Sunday, March 3, 2013
Austin American Statesman
Listening to transportation officials last week extol the virtues of what will be Austin’s seventh tollway, I couldn’t help but think of John Carona.
Carona, make that state Sen. Carona, is a Dallas Republican who just about broke his legislative pick in 2009 trying to get a “local option” transportation bill into state law. His measure, which passed the Senate, would have allowed county commissioners in urban areas to ask voters to OK a local gas tax or to increase existing automobile fees. The point was to raise money for local transportation projects.
But although Carona’s legislation did not raise anyone’s taxes, instead merely allowing the possibility that voters might do that to themselves, it was branded a tax-increase bill. In the Texas Legislature these days, particularly in the House, that’s not just the kiss of death. It’s more like a two-hour makeout session of death. The bill died on the session’s penultimate day.
Back to last week. Austin Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton and his chief employee, Phil Wilson, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, on Thursday hosted an ebullient press conference to talk about what will be a 2-mile-long tollway on Texas 71.
The four-lane toll road, with six free frontage road lanes alongside, would run from east of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport’s entrance at Presidential Boulevard to just east of the Texas 130 toll road. The project, TxDOT estimates, will cost $141 million and, if all goes well, should be open by late 2016.
I had a question for them: Why is this going to be a toll road?
Because, you see, none of that $141 million will be borrowed money. TxDOT has it all on hand, a combination of regular tax and fee money from the state highway fund as well as $59 million the agency received from a private consortium for the right to build and profit from another tollway.
In other words, the tolls will not be used to pay back debt to a third party, the traditional reason to charge tolls. All of the money drivers pay, aside from the relatively small amount it will take to collect tolls and maintain the shiny new road, will be essentially profit.
Go back a decade, and that would have been a real problem around here. When the toll road wave first hit Central Texas in 2003, TxDOT announced plans to impose tolls on three road sections that were under construction and were being built purely with tax money. People, including elected people, rebelled at this. Double taxation, some called it. We paid for the road before you built it, and now we’re going to have to pay again to drive it.
TxDOT retreated, and those road sections, including part of Texas 71 west of the airport, remain free to drivers.
When I asked why the two miles east of the airport needed to be a tollway, Wilson gave a jargon-rich explanation that, roughly translated, was that the toll money would help pay for operations and maintenance, and for future road projects in the area.
That last part is the most salient answer, and it’s where Carona and the Legislature come into this discussion. And let’s throw Congress into the mix while we’re at it.
As I’ve written 10 zillion times before, Texas’ 20-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax has not increased since 1991, and the federal 18.4-cents-a-gallon tax has stalled there since 1993. Given inflation and better fuel efficiency, the purchasing power of gas tax receipts basically has been cut in half.
Carona, aside from his doomed effort on the local option transportation initiative, pushed for increasing the gas tax during his time as the Senate Transportation Committee chairman. That included a memorable 2007 press conference to tout his gas tax hike at which not a single legislator joined Carona at the podium, or in the room, for that matter. Carona’s legislation never went anywhere, and he accepted the chairmanship of a different committee in 2011.
Other revenue-generating proposals floating around this legislative session, including raising car registration fees and reallocating vehicle sales taxes to transportation, don’t seem to be getting any traction.
So, if you can’t increase transportation taxes or fees, or even ask local voters to do so, how do you raise money for roads? You do what TxDOT has in mind for Texas 71.
What we’ll get is a road that will make it faster to get between the Texas 130 tollway and the airport, and relief from the backups that occur on Texas 71 at FM 973. But what we’ll also get is more money going into the transportation kitty, courtesy of people driving in Austin (locals and visitors). And that should lead to future transportation projects in Central Texas.
Which is what Carona had in mind.
Double taxation? No, not really. Stealth taxation? Maybe. But how else, given the political climate at the Capitol, to get the money to move the ever-increasing number of folks living in Central Texas?
The companies that build and maintain roads for some reason keep demanding to be paid for doing so. People are funny that way.
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