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There’s no such thing as a free road

I have an issue with this.

Texas’ boom of toll roads has made the “free” part of freeway mean something different lately.

As toll lanes become the preferred choice for adding capacity to Texas roads, a growing number of state lawmakers and toll critics are looking for assurances that state-built freeways will stay open to everyone. Coming up with a precise set of rules, however, is proving trickier than expected.

“I believe free roads should remain free,” Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, told the Senate Transportation Committee last week.

Campbell is working with Texas Department of Transportation officials to craft a more detailed version of SB 1029, her bill to prohibit existing state roads from conversion to toll lanes. A similar bill by Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the House Transportation Committee.

Last week, TxDOT officials expressed concern that Campbell’s bill could have unintended consequences and curtail upcoming toll lane construction.

[…]

Without an outright ban, critics worry TxDOT will take roads away from motorists, said Terri Hall, founder of San Antonio-based Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, an anti-tax and anti-toll group. She called efforts to toll U.S. 281 north of the metro area “truly highway robbery.”

TxDOT officials stressed that none of their plans include converting free lanes to tolls. Major projects TxDOT has tackled in the past five years mostly were funded by borrowing, state officials said.

Using the paths already carved by freeways makes sense, toll proponents said, especially in places already suffering from heavy congestion.

“The most effective means of addressing that congestion is to add capacity within those corridors,” said C. Brian Cassidy, a lawyer with Locke Lord LLP in Austin, who focuses on transportation and infrastructure law.

“Tolls are not taxes,” Cassidy said. “Tolls present a choice and, more importantly, they present an option to fund and deliver projects.”

Here’s SB1029. I agree with the argument that roads that were built with public funds and which are currently not tolled should remain toll-free. I also agree that there should be some legal safeguards to ensure that public, toll-free roads are properly maintained and not neglected as as way to enable toll roads, especially toll roads built in part or in whole with private capital, to meet revenue targets. But if we’re going to put restrictions on TxDOT and other road-building agencies, we should at least be honest with ourselves as to why toll roads are all the rage these days. You know where I’m going with this – the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in 20 years and is unable to provide sufficient revenue for Texas’ transportation needs. To his credit, Sen. Kevin Eltife has touted a gas tax hike and inflation index to help deal with this. I don’t share Sen. Eltife’s obsession with debt, and I strongly oppose a sales tax increase as a way of dealing with TxDOT’s bond load, but at least Eltife recognizes the problem and is willing to talk about solutions. (Sen. John Carona has also supported increasing and indexing the gas tax.) I’m willing to support Sen. Campbell’s effort here, but she needs to be willing to acknowledge that you get what you pay for, roads included.

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4 Comments

  1. mollusk says:

    Tolls most assuredly are a tax. The government is requiring you to give it money for something. To say that you have a “choice” and therefore it’s not a tax is like saying you have a choice not to buy a pair of shoes, and thus that extra almost 10% tacked onto the purchase price isn’t a tax. Tolls, “user fees,” “professional services fees” (that some of us get to pay in order to maintain a state license, along with other state charges)…they’re ALL taxes, they’re just named something different to give lily livered politicians cover, since they know most of the public would be distracted anyway.

  2. Gary says:

    One of the problems with toll roads is that they deter motorists from taking the best routes, even against the public interest. To relieve congestion on Austin’s I-35, they built 130 around the city. But because it is (a) a slightly longer route, reducing or even eliminating the time savings and (b) expensive, almost none of the through traffic makes use of it. If there were at least the flexibility of charging tolls for trucks on I-35, while making their passage of 130 free for them, traffic flow all around would be much more rational; but that is not a legal option. Best of course would be raising the gas tax to the point where TX-DOT could resume its historic task of meeting Texas’ transportation needs.

  3. Joel says:

    one point of disagreement, mollusk. tolls are taxes, agreed, but they are a particularly onerous type. while use fees sound good in the abstract, they are generally even more regressive than other forms of taxation (consider the working class person for whom the toll is a significant chunk of their hourly wage that they must pay to get to work).

    gas taxes spread the pain a bit more than toll roads, but are still more regressive even than general sales taxes (for same reason as above). and general sales taxes are notoriously regressive.

    why must we frame our policy choices amongst only the bad, worse, and worst options? stupid texas.

  4. James says:

    And here I thought money from roadways was also taken from my annual state registration sticker fees as well.

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