July 4, 2007
I hate traffic. I hate losing time.And I don’t particularly like toll roads, although I probably don’t have the reflexive aversion to them that some have developed over the past few years.The past legislative session began with lots of unhappiness about the potential proliferation of toll roads. There seemed to be three points of agreement:1. We must decrease traffic congestion, starting today.2. Current funding sources aren’t sufficient.3. Let’s avoid tolls.If the environment was ever ripe for the creation of tools other than toll roads, it was during the past six months.It didn’t happen. If you want less traffic and dislike toll roads, you should be disappointed.Instead, the state budget effectively decreased funding for the Department of Transportation, since it didn’t provide enough money to keep up with double-digit inflation in the cost of road building.There was talk about raising the gas tax, or at least indexing it to inflation, and reducing the need for toll roads. But tax bills must start in the state House of Representatives, and a potential increase never made it to the floor.Instead, the House passed a “gas tax holiday” for the three summer months. This moratorium on traffic relief would have cost the state $700 million this year alone. It didn’t pass the Senate.There also had been talk of ending the use of transportation money for non-transportation uses. Instead, the Legislature actually diverted 15 percent more money out of the state’s primary transportation fund.The Legislature did find some new money for transportation, allowing the state to borrow more money for transportation projects and use a new Transportation Reinvestment Zone. But repaying that debt will require more gas tax revenue (which is already inadequate) or general revenue (which pays for other necessary services), while the reinvestment zone will pull property taxes away from other services to pay for transportation.We’re also losing federal money. In the past couple of years, the federal government has announced Texas would lose $594 million in federal transportation money. The federal government recently notified the state that it will lose another $72 million this year.It’s clear there’s a gap between the amount of money we have and the amount we need to reduce our serious and growing congestion problem.It costs money to increase road capacity and enhance mobility. There are no free roads. And it will take generations to pay for our current needs — not to mention our future ones — using only the financing tools we’ve been given. That means we’ll spend more and more of our lives sitting in traffic, and our children will have to fix the problems we’ll leave them.I fear for our economy, our air quality and our quality of life if Central Texas becomes a gridlocked mess where every highway is like Interstate 35, every surface street is like Lamar Boulevard at rush hour, and every neighborhood needs speed bumps because so many drivers are desperate for a short cut.We have too much traffic. More people are coming. And they’ll be driving cars.But more roads and road capacity are not coming for all of those people and cars — not without more money. And the only possibilities are gas taxes (which the Legislature has rejected), property taxes (which are unfair and already too high), toll roads and innovative growth strategies that give people options besides their cars.We all have a lot of work to do on this issue. We can’t just pretend we can get something for nothing. Nor can we defer to an almost instinctive distaste for things like toll roads or land-use planning.It’s time for us to honestly assess our needs and come together around tools that will meet them.Simply warring over those tools should no longer be acceptable — to any of us.