September 4, 2007
Next month, a group of your elected officials will vote on much-needed improvements to five vital highway corridors in Central Texas. Unfortunately, if we want this additional road capacity and mobility, we’ll have to build these improvements by assessing fees on those who use them. That is the box we all share, thanks to the declining federal commitment to roads, the State’s failure to assure that the primary transportation fund will grow to keep up with demand and inflation, and the increasing willingness at the Legislature to divert money away from transportation and toward priorities that should be paid for through other means. The five projects are typical of traditional toll projects – tolls provide the essential revenue that allows us to improve highways in ways we could never afford to do otherwise. The projected fees collected will pay only for building the improvements on that road. And the roads will preserve untolled access wherever it existed before, protecting drivers who don’t want to pay tolls. Under this proposal, those who don’t want to pay a fee will experience a commute essentially identical to what they know today. Most importantly, these tolls will not be levied on an inch of existing highway pavement. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), which coordinates planning for major Central Texas transportation projects and which I chair, has decided to turn back attempts to toll existing highways that were paid for through tax dollars and are open to traffic. I recommended that repudiation nearly a year ago, partly in response to demands that CAMPO not “double-tax” our highway infrastructure. Now, it’s going to be official – no Central Texas driver will face a fully tolled road on any portion of any highway that they don’t pay tolls on now. Now, I understand that many, including me, wish the state would accept its transportation duties and adequately fund our needs. I share the frustration with the lack of transparency and accountability in some of the agencies that build and operate toll roads. I strongly and vocally oppose efforts to privatize public infrastructure.I even acknowledge the sentiment – though I strongly disagree with it – that we would be better off with no transportation improvements at all than we would be with the vital traffic relief that these toll projects offer. Likewise, I simply don’t believe it’s responsible to do nothing while we wait, we hope, for an alternative funding mechanism that may not come.I also don’t understand those who say they support “traditional” toll projects in general, but not these traditional toll projects in particular. Some who have written in opposition to these projects claim to support “conventional” or “traditional” toll roads, seemingly acknowledging that some user fees, under some circumstances, make sense.Keep in mind that no one – not the Department of Transportation, not the CAMPO Board, and especially not me – is talking about privatizing these improvements. I know of no one involved in this vote who wants a corporation, foreign or domestic, to own these projects or to set the toll rates we all would have to pay.Thanks to that sentiment that we all share, none of these projects will be owned or controlled by private entities. In fact, there’s a two year moratorium on efforts to privatize road infrastructure such as these improvements. I voted for that moratorium.Some folks also say they oppose these traditional, public toll projects because they’re improvements to an existing road. The opponents of the improvements argue against them because they’re not a totally new road, paid for entirely through significant toll rates.What they don’t talk about are the consequences of this radical line-in-the-sand. The foundation of their position is that, with “new” roads, there would be no existing public right-of way involved. So, without saying it, these opponents are claiming they would support tollways that gobble up exclusively private property for right-of-way, and where financing options must be artificially constrained. How could we adhere to this ideology and build significant traffic relief on Central Texas roads, which are intolerably congested right now? We don’t have money to improve them without tolls providing some supplement. So roads such as State Highway 71, U.S. 183, or the Oak Hill Y would need to be left as they are, struggling with an ever increasing population placing new demands on them. Meanwhile, CAMPO would be forced to find entirely new highway corridors to provide any traffic relief at all. In other words, these ideologues would force the region to plow any new toll roads in or near Austin through areas that most likely have people living or working there already. You can’t build solutions in or near Austin and leave existing roads untouched without finding new right-of-way and bulldozing the neighborhoods, business owners, and others who are already rooted there. Meanwhile, some of our current roadways need improvements today and will certainly need them as the future arrives. The other option would be to build entirely new roads far from Austin or any population center. This, of course, subsidizes only the very worst suburban sprawl – but for the ideologues, that seems to be a small price to pay. Tolls are no silver bullet for our region’s considerable transportation challenges. Nothing is. But conventional, transparent, accountable, publicly controlled user fees, such as those CAMPO will consider for these five highway improvements, are among the tools this region will need to create a truly comprehensive transportation system. CAMPO has created the most open and public process in its history to determine what we need, what we can afford, and what we hope to build. I hope I can continue to count on you to be part of that process and help us as we address our transportation challenges.