Jaime Castillo - San Antonio Express News - 07/22/2007
They say you don't kill the messenger, but can you at least throttle him?
The "him" in this instance is Dye Management Group Inc., which recently completed a draft audit on toll roads for the Texas Transportation Commission.
After taking a look at existing toll rates of 10 to 15 cents a mile in Dallas, Houston and Austin, the firm determined that local toll authorities aren't charging drivers enough.
The logic — a term that should be used loosely — is that motorists can and will pay more, which would bring in more cash for the state's yawning road needs.
"Tolls charged by local authorities are lower than studies indicate that their customers would be willing to pay," the audit reads. "As a result, congestion goals will not be met."
Translation: "If you want to raise funds for other projects, keep jacking up the toll price until drivers cry 'uncle,' and then back it off a penny or two."
As reported by Express-News transportation writer Patrick Driscoll, the audit "mirrors much of what officials have been saying for years."
Hope Andrade, a transportation commission member from San Antonio, told Driscoll:
"It just confirms the emergency situation that we're in. We can no longer support toll rates that are not market value."
If this were part of a political handbook on winning support for toll roads from a skeptical public, charging "market value" — or as much as you can get — on tollways would be relegated to the section titled: "How to lose even more support in 30 seconds or less."
And this isn't the fault of people like Andrade, either. State and federal lawmakers continually saddle transportation officials with a losing poker hand.
In the last 16 years, the state's population — and construction costs — have grown exponentially. Yet, the gas tax — the primary source of highway funding — has been frozen since 1991.
And not only has it remained static in an ever-changing world, state lawmakers can't keep their hands off of it either.
Continuing its long-running budgetary shell game, the Legislature's latest two-year budget will see one-tenth, or $1.6 billion, of the highway fund diverted from building and maintaining roads.
With fiscal constraint apparently off the table, raising the gas tax must be looked at seriously. While difficult with gasoline prices hovering around $3 a gallon, it could be done if the entire state leadership — the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker — supported the change.
That way, lawmakers, who already quietly concede that the gas tax is too low, could stick their necks out and not fear being singled out as the pigeons that supported higher taxes.
The alternative is to unnecessarily gouge those who will use toll roads. If the recommendations by Dye Management Group are the guide, toll riders will soon have the privilege of paying the highest tolls possible and paying the 20-cent-a-gallon gas tax.
A recent trip to the car dealer landed me in a shuttle van with several other car-less souls.
The shuttle van driver, exasperated by a 15-minute wait to go a couple of miles on U.S. 281 North, said to no one in particular:
"This almost makes you want to see toll roads."
To which, a homeowner who lives near the intersection of 281 and Bulverde Road blurted out:
"I don't care what they do as long as they do something soon."
With that kind of captive — and infuriated — audience, state and local transportation officials are banking that they will get their way eventually.
But it still doesn't make it right.
Read Jaime Castillo's column in the San Antonio Express News on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
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