6 Nov 2009, 5:00pm
Gas taxes Roads Toll roads

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Beating a dead horse (toll road genesis Part Deux)

nagIn my last post, I discussed how toll roads came to be the funding option of choice in recent years for big road projects.  The question I closed with was whether or not they’re the best solution, and if not, how to fund roadbuilding without them.  As I alluded to, it’s really a chicken-and-egg scenario: do toll roads perpetuate the status quo, or does the status quo perpetuate toll roads?

My wife and I have had this conversation several times.  She understands the problem, but is of the mind that tolls should be the option of absolute last resort—they need to fix the gas tax problems first.  In essence, she thinks that the current toll paradigm is getting the cart before the horse.

While she has a point, my view is that the horse is dead and that we need to quit beating it and instead hitch our carts up to a different horse that’s actually going somewhere.  That horse may be mangy and carrying equine flu, but I’m not going to look in its mouth just yet because it’s the only hope right now of getting me where I need to go.  That said, if a nice thoroughbred trots up, I’ll happily send my nag to the glue factory.

If you had a hard time following the horse metaphors and clichés, let me put it like this: tolls are the best solution we have at the moment and for the foreseeable future.  Because the Legislature has not fixed the gas tax in nearly two decades and has shown no obvious signs of being willing to do so anytime soon*, we can’t afford to sit around with our heads in the sand hoping they’ll see the light someday soon.  We’ve been left to fend for ourselves, and tolls are the only mechanism available at the moment that has the horsepower (sorry for another horse reference) to get the job done.  The Legislature even shot-down a bill in their last session that would have allowed local areas to tax themselves for road improvements—that’s how stubborn they are about this.

Now, if by some miracle-of-miracles the Legislature does fix the gas tax problem (I’ll talk about what that means in a minute), or at least gives local areas the option to increase their own tax (and we approve it here), then I believe that resolves and supersedes the need for tolling.

Now here is the caveat: “fixing the gas tax” means three things:

  1. Increasing it to make-up for the loss of value due to inflation since 1991.  Depending on which formula you use, this currently means a 12 to 15 cent increase.
  2. Automatically indexing it to inflation going forward.  Either the CPI or HCI (Highway Cost Index) will suffice in my eyes.
  3. Cease all diversions from the highway fund.  I’m on the fence about the 25% of gas tax revenues that go to public education since the likely scenario to make-up that money is higher property taxes.  But all other pilfering (e.g. DPS) must cease.

Not doing all three of the above only fixes part of the problem, which by definition does not solve the problem.  Many folks think that just doing #3 is the magic answer, but it’s not, for reasons I explained in Wednesday’s post.

So, for the record: I support fixing the gas tax as I have described above.  Alternatively, I support the so-called “local-option” tax, where we could vote to increase the gas taxes here in San Antonio to fix our own problems.  In a shock of all shocks, toll opponent Terri Hall and I see eye-to-eye on this.

Do either of the above, and I agree that the need for tolling most new projects becomes moot.  Until then, I believe that tolling is the best—and pretty much only—option on the table.  As “Steve” said in a reply to Wednesday’s post, nobody wants toll roads, but it’s all that we’re left with right now.  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  (A horse in the hand… oh, never mind.)

Which leads to the question as to whether the current tolling plans just allow the Legislature to perpetuate the status quo.  Answer: maybe.  Yes, I can see why some would think that (including my wife.)  But I can also see that toll roads have ticked a lot of people off to the point that they’re pushing back on our elected officials and thus making transportation policy a central issue.  I don’t think that would have happened without the impetus of toll roads to ruffle people’s feathers.  People were obviously content with (or unaware of) what was happening and only got involved when the direct result of that apathy started to rear its head.  So, in a bit of irony, maybe the whole toll road brouhaha is what gets the gas tax problem fixed once and for all.

What do you think?

(* I just discovered that legislators are crafting a bill for the 2011 session that would fix the gas tax.  Read more about it here and keep your fingers crossed that it survives the inevitable infighting that will ensue.  I’m not holding my breath though.)


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