Gas taxes can't fuel all road projects
San Antonio Express-News
For almost 20 years, Richard Hille has watched houses sprout in the hills north of town and businesses pop up along U.S. 281.
His once-easy sprint on the highway disappeared as traffic swelled five-fold.
He's no highway engineer, but he knows something has to be done.
"It has been just outrageous," Hille said.
A light-rail system won't come to the rescue anytime soon — voters slapped down that idea five years ago. VIA Metropolitan Transit is laying plans to extend commuter buses beyond Loop 1604, but that's not likely to pry enough Texan fingers from the steering wheels.
Highway officials say they'll have to lay more asphalt, and plan to break ground for San Antonio's first toll road in January — adding four to eight lanes to a three-mile section of U.S. 281 just north of Loop 1604.
But a debate rages over how to pay for new highway lanes. The old way has been mostly with gas taxes. The new way, if state officials prevail, and it looks like they could, will include tolls.
Motorists, stressed by growing traffic and high gas prices, and not always familiar with arcane details and ramifications of highway finances, are split on the issue.
Maybe boosting the gas tax by a nickel a gallon would be best, Hille said. After all, he's paid gas taxes that went for roads he doesn't use, so now other drivers can pay to widen U.S. 281.
"Put me down for that," he said.
Or would it be better — and fairer — to ask drivers to pay something like $1.40 for a 10-mile cruise past gridlock?
"If I saw, while I was sitting there, free-flowing traffic on the toll road, I'd pay," North Side resident Rob Reiter said. "At least, people are going to have a choice."But regardless of what Hille and Reiter think, Gov. Rick Perry and state legislators have decided tolls are the way to go.Laws were passed in recent years to make it happen, and voters — some critics say unwittingly — changed the Texas Constitution in 2001 to let the state borrow and loan funds for toll roads. It also allows the state, for the first time, to spend gas tax money on toll projects.Then, in 2003, the Texas Transportation Commission passed a landmark policy to toll every new highway lane possible.Commission Chairman Ric Williamson coined a mantra to drill the message home: "It's the no road, the toll road, or the slow road."
For almost a century, Texas has taxed gasoline and collected fees to fund roads on a pay-as-you-go basis. Officials claim that tested system is falling apart and can pay for just a third of needed projects.State and federal elected leaders, worried about what they see as political suicide, have refused to raise gas taxes since the 1990s. Inflation, with help from hybrid and alternative-fuel cars starting to surge into the market, is slowly choking the purchasing power of gas taxes.
Planners say there's an $8 billion shortfall over the next 25 years for new highway lanes and bus service in San Antonio. Meanwhile, the city's congestion is getting worse, with the average motorist stuck in stalled traffic for 36 hours in 2002, up from just seven hours in 1982, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.
"We will see the rush-hour period extend longer and longer," warned Joe Krier, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. "It'll back up farther, it'll last longer, and it'll extend to other freeways."
The toll lanes on U.S. 281, funded with $77 million in gas taxes, are expected to open in 2009 and eventually anchor a planned 47-mile network that will extend to Comal County and span the North Side along Loop 1604.
More than 70 miles of toll roads over 25 years were approved last year by the Metropolitan Planning Organization.But the debate over whether San Antonio needs toll roads is just starting to rev up.Outraged motorists have jammed public meetings to unleash their fury. They have begun to organize, holding rallies and filling Web pages with their vitriol. Their main complaint is that tolls are more of a tool to raise money — loads of it — than to tackle traffic congestion.
Toll is just another word for tax, they say.
"This is unbridled taxation," said Terri Hall, organizer of Texas Toll Party — San Antonio. "The taxpayers decide when this debate is over."
Stretching factsWhen the rhetoric gets rolling on toll roads, some key facts can get stretched or trampled. Both sides are guilty.For example, the Texas Department of Transportation says toll roads are fair, because users pay for the new lanes.But toll users aren't the only ones paying for toll roads. Taxpayers paid for land where toll lanes will be built in San Antonio. And more than $500 million, so far, in taxes and fees will subsidize the $3.5 billion worth of toll projects here."Don't be fooled by the argument that even those of you that plan to use the free lanes will never be affected by tolls," said Dave Ramos of Texas Toll Party.Also, toll users won't just pay for the road they're driving on. After a toll road is paid for, officials will continue to collect fees and spend some of the money on other projects, most likely to build more toll lanes in other parts of the city.
Among the bolder claims of toll critics is that money for highways isn't shrinking, despite federal and state gas taxes being frozen at 38.4 cents a gallon since 1997. The state's 20-cent portion has been fixed since 1991.
It's true that gas-tax revenues have been increasing in Texas, even when adjusted for inflation. But the amount of driving has shot up much faster, which means the growing pot of money can't keep up with increasingly worn and clogged roads.
"To not address this problem honestly ... is a disservice to the public and taxpayers," said David Casteel, TxDOT's lead engineer in San Antonio.
Why tolls?Officials don't have to toll highways to come up with more money; there are other options. It's just that tolls seem to be the path of least resistance.
Without tolls, gas taxes would have to be raised $1 per gallon to build and maintain roads statewide, officials said last year. Just focusing on the eight largest cities and leaving out maintenance, they say gas taxes would have to go up 35 cents to pay for $68 billion in unmet needs over the next 25 years.
But proposed toll roads in those cities will hardly cover that hefty bill. Tolls, the fledgling Texas Mobility Fund and other new sources such as San Antonio's quarter-cent sales tax increase — a portion of which pays for highways — will fund only $12 billion.
Tolls alone will account for just $5 billion over the next quarter century.
What toll critics want to know is how much gas taxes would have to be raised to do what urban toll roads are supposed to do. Considering that each penny of the gas tax raises about $100 million a year for highways, an increase of 2 cents should do it.
But that's not the whole story.
Toll plans such as those in San Antonio also speed up projects as much as 10 to 20 years by securing bonds to get construction money upfront. Toll fees actually can reap more than three times the amount that bond sales would generate, which is needed to cover bond debts that can last for 40 years.
Although bonds for roads also could be secured with gas tax revenues, the current gas tax does not have the same purchasing power as the tolls planned by the state. Drivers are paying 31/2 cents a mile in gas taxes — and a penny of that isn't even spent on Texas roads — but they might pay 12 to 15 cents a mile to use a toll lane.
If gas taxes were used to back bonds, officials would have to scale back and cancel future highway projects or kick gas tax rates skyward to help pay debt service on the bonds.So then, why not do away with bonding altogether and get money quicker by raising the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon, which would bring in the $5 billion over 10 years?Fat chance, said state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio.Four years ago, he and a few other legislators wanted to raise the gas tax by a nickel or a dime. But Perry quashed momentum by promising to veto such a bill if it reached his desk.
Now gas prices are bobbing erratically, and motorists are getting more worried. A bill to at least tie the state gas tax to inflation managed to get some backing earlier this year, but went nowhere.
"It wasn't very popular then, and it's even less popular now," Wentworth said. "All of us want the very best, but we don't want to pay for it, or we want to pay for as little as possible."
But even with those gas tax increases, there wouldn't be enough money, TxDOT officials stress. For that matter, tolls by themselves aren't enough.
"There's still more needs," said Clay Smith, an engineer in TxDOT's San Antonio office. "That still doesn't solve the rest of the congestion in the metropolitan areas."
Some critics aren't so sure the situation is that serious."You have to understand that, in the highway world, needs are what most of us would call wish lists," said Bill Barker, a San Antonio-based transportation consultant.
Tolling new highway lanes in San Antonio could add more than $1 billion in construction funds to $2 billion available to this area from taxes and fees over the next 25 years, according to TxDOT.
A toll fee of 14 cents a mile for autos and 38 cents for trucks was used to make estimates.
A recent state poll asked drivers whether they'd be willing to pay from $1.10 to $6.80 to travel roughly 18 miles on a future Loop 1604 toll lane. The poll results have not yet been released.
Bexar County staff and the San Antonio Mobility Coalition — a nonprofit advocacy group that supports toll roads — crunched numbers to look at alternative ways to rake in $100 million a year over a decade. Here's what they came up with:
Create a countywide gas tax of 25.7 cents per gallon.
Or increase the city sales tax by ¾ of a cent.
Or boost city property taxes 56 percent.
Or raise the county's vehicle registration fee from $10 to $110.
Perhaps the murkiest part of the toll-road debate concerns whether highways are being converted to tollways.
Both sides have their definitions to frame arguments. For beleaguered motorists, the truth often lurks in shadows.
Toll advocates say drivers will always have an option to use non-tolled roads, though they'll be congested.
Toll lanes will be built in the middle of U.S. 281 after existing lanes are moved apart, and will be placed in the median of Loop 1604 and elevated over Interstate-35. The number of free lanes will stay the same.Opponents argue that rights of way purchased by taxpayers will be used for toll lanes, and that adjacent free lanes will be pressed into service to feed toll lanes. Existing roads will become more crowded than ever.
But projects attracting the most heat involve highways such as U.S. 281, where express toll lanes will be added from North Loop 1604 to the Comal County line. The existing highway lanes will become or be replaced with frontage roads.The question is whether a frontage road is a fair replacement for a highway. State law says it is; proponents maintain. Common sense says it's not, critics counter.
As traffic grows on the future U.S. 281 frontage roads, more traffic lights will be added at intersections, TxDOT officials acknowledge. But the same would happen if it remains a highway.
More importantly, the frontage road will be designed for a speed of 45 mph, compared to the current posted limits of 60 and 65 mph on U.S. 281.
TxDOT engineers insist that's not a downgrade, saying average speeds on U.S. 281 near Loop 1604 are less than 45 mph, due to congestion. Also, posted limits are determined by average travel speeds, not road designs, meaning posted speeds can be higher.
"It just depends on what people are driving," said Carlos Lopez, director of traffic operations for TxDOT. "We'll just have to see what happens the day that road opens up."Toll critics are far from convinced, saying the frontage roads will foster the very congestion that TxDOT officials claim they're solving. Some even say the freeway lanes on Loop 1604 and I-35 could be impacted by adjacent toll lanes."Since when is our government into providing separate but unequal services," said North Side resident Nikki Kuhns, who drives on U.S. 281 every day. "I'm not against toll roads, I'm against them on existing roads."
Cindy Cox moved to San Antonio three months ago and she's still trying to make sense of the toll-road talk.
She lives near U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 and avoids those highways during rush hours. She's against building toll roads, though she sometimes paid tolls in Chicago, and she's against higher gas taxes.
What Cox really wants is not even on the drawing board.
"It would be nice if they had a train like they did in Chicago," she said while waiting for her husband to pick her up at a grocery store. "It was the best thing, the trains. The trains got you everywhere."
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