The idea of paying tolls to avoid traffic snarls and drive on shiny new roads once captivated our attention. Now toll roads are everyone’s favorite bogeyman.
So what went wrong?
It’s a given that transportation is chronically underfunded in this country, especially in fast-growing Texas. Our ability to build and maintain enough highways to handle vehicle traffic has simply been overwhelmed using the existing, antiquated gas-tax model (20 cents per gallon since 1991). The result in Texas is a growing problem of gridlock in the major metropolitan areas of Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin — home to two-thirds of our state’s population.
At one point, we faced three choices: 1. Do nothing. 2. Raise taxes. 3. Build self-funded roads. Texas embraced the latter and a network of user-paid toll roads began to take shape, mostly in the Metroplex and Houston.
These roads have been hugely popular among the drivers who use them and pay for them. I recently discovered SH 130 and, I promise you, it’s worth every penny in tolls to avoid downtown Austin traffic. When I have to drive in the Metroplex, I seek out toll roads just to keep moving.
Yet just last year the state Republican Party changed its platform, removing language that supported toll roads. In the Legislature, transportation is a big topic this spring and elected officials are going negative on the idea of expanding the toll road network in Texas. This past week a lawmaker filed a bill requiring the Texas Department of Transportation to perform a feasibility study on how much money it would take to lift tolls on roads that have them now and how much it would take to prevent building more toll roads in the future. (Can’t wait to see that number.)
Incorporating private companies into the building and maintaining of toll roads was a mistake. Public-private partnerships work in many areas, but building roads is not one of them. Taking land by way of eminent domain for a new road is a dicey process even when the Texas Department of Transportation does it. Imagine how landowners feel when they’re forced to give up land to an ambiguous shell corporation backed by overseas investors. The practice was ended by lawmakers in 2009, but the damage was done on the perception front.
And the idea of charging for lanes that were once free is wrong and the worst public relations disaster in the history of transportation funding. Mixing free and toll lanes along the same route is a bad idea. Most of us haven’t figured out how the car pool lane works. Yet U.S. 75 in Collin County north of Dallas could soon be a patchwork of free and toll lanes — confusing drivers and fueling anti-toll road sentiment even further. (Honk if you understand what TEXPress Lanes do.)
Toll roads only work when they are needed, stand alone, are self-funded and, most importantly, exist entirely under the jurisdiction of a public entity. The North Texas Tollway Authority, the Harris County Toll Road Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation are public entities, with board members appointed by elected officials.
There is a growing perception that toll roads are engulfing the state of Texas. The reality is they exist in only three places — Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin.
Another common myth: Toll roads double-tax the public. Yet every user-fee road built is a road the state doesn’t have to fund with scarce resources. The NTTA recently issued its 3 millionth TollTag, proof alone drivers use toll roads en masse.
Transportation funding remains woefully inadequate. The state transportation department has a $5 billion backlog of projects that will only grow as our state grows. Toll roads are vital to relieving congestion and driving economic development in metro areas.
And the fact that they’ve fallen out of favor doesn’t change that reality.
Steve Boggs is editor of the Tribune-Herald. Email firstname.lastname@example.org