Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Governor emphasis on tollways, private road-builders has generated urban and rural unrest

By Ben Wear - AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF - Sunday, August 20, 2006
Excerpts from a long story last year on Perry's transportation policy.
Perry, with his famously well-coiffed look and perfectly tailored suits, surely doesn't look the part of a revolutionary, and he rejects that characterization. But he acknowledges that transportation is the area where he made the most "wide-sweeping" changes.

Perry declared the gasoline tax a lame duck, dismissing talk of raising it. Perry and his allies decreed that all new road projects would be evaluated for tolls. They contemplated slapping tolls on existing roads, then backed off after a public outcry.

Perry in early 2002 outlined what seemed to be a pie-in-the-sky plan for 4,000 miles of rural toll roads called the Trans-Texas Corridor. After hearing people scoff for more than two years, Perry introduced some Spaniards who said they'd spend $7.2 billion on the first 300-mile piece, including a $1.2 billion payment to the state. And Perry's Department of Transportation declared Texas "open for business," inviting private companies — foreign or domestic — to privately finance and operate the next generation of Texas expressways and railroads.

"What is happening in Texas on public-private partnerships is being watched by every state in the union and several foreign countries," Perry said during a late July interview in his Capitol office.

"When I parachuted in here on Dec. 21, 2000, I inherited a state that had huge infrastructure challenges."

Gas tax not enough

Evaluating just how huge that challenge was — is it a crisis or just an emerging problem? — has involved an escalating war of statistics over the past couple of years.

The state's population has increased more than 20 percent since 1990 and annual miles traveled on the state's roads have gone up about 50 percent. Meanwhile, the Texas highway system, with increasing maintenance costs and more expensive urban construction needs, grew only 4 percent during that decade and a half.

The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from those numbers, one borne out by most people's experience behind the wheel, is that Texas roads are more congested than they were 15 years ago.

The state Transportation Department's budget, meanwhile, has tripled since 1990, including an 80 percent jump from the budget Perry inherited from George W. Bush to this year's $7.7 billion spending plan.
Perry and his people say that's still not nearly enough to deal with the state's transportation needs now or, especially, in the future. Using figures gleaned by asking local transportation planners what they would build if money were no object, they say the state will have $86 billion in unmet transportation needs over the next 25 years. [NOTE: Perry's Governor's Taskforce on Transportation later revised this down to a $44 billion shortfall.]

They say the only way to close that gap, to extinguish the blaze, as it were, is to put tolls on every road you can and recruit private capital to build as many new toll roads as possible. Increasing the state gasoline tax, frozen at 20 cents a gallon since 1991, is not an option, Perry and his fellow GOP legislative leaders say, particularly with unleaded gas selling for close to $3 a gallon. But that was already his position when gas was selling for well under $2 a gallon.

...A few cents, in Perry's view, would be irrelevant. Each penny raises about $100 million in a year, or enough for one fair-sized freeway interchange with flyover bridges. So a 20-cent increase, which would give Texas the highest gas tax of any state, would bring in an extra $2 billion a year. Perry says that wouldn't be nearly enough to return Texas' transportation system to its former lofty status among states, particularly as hybrid vehicles and other improvements from Detroit increase gas efficiency and cause gas tax revenue to sag.

A 20-cents-a-gallon increase in the tax would cost the average driver about $100 a year. That's much less than a driver regularly commuting on a toll road would pay. The U.S. 183-A tollway due to open next year (in Austin) will cost $2 for one trip through, or about $1,000 a year for a five-day-a-week commuter.
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