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Can We Afford to Take Tolls Off the Table?

Posted By ACEC Texas, Monday, March 23, 2015

Anti-toll sentiments are busting out all over at the Capitol these days – rallies against tolls and bills against system financing of toll roads, against managed lanes, against toll equity contributions, and more.  There is a sense that now that the Legislature is getting serious about funding transportation, we can forego the toll solutions that have expanded drastically over the past decade.  But is that true?

There is no question that the proliferation of toll roads has been related to the Legislature’s (and the previous Governor’s) unwillingness to consider traditional financing.  There were other options:  One analysis indicated that the growth in gross toll revenue connections by the state’s toll road agencies since 1991 was almost exactly what would have been raised by a half-cent annual increase in the state’s motor fuel tax rate.  But in the absence of greater traditional funding, the metropolitan areas of the state embraced the only option the Legislature gave them for capacity expansion of major thoroughfares – tolling.

There probably is an amount of money that the Legislature could commit that would allow toll solutions to be taken off the table, but with current proposals we are a long, long way from it. 

In 2012, the state’s 2030 Committee estimated that the state faced a $170 billion gap (in 2010 dollars) between available funding and the amount needed to maintain current conditions over 25 years.  Legislators were told in follow up hearings that approximately $50 billion of that gap would come from local funding, primarily toll-based.  That is where the idea of $5 billion in needed state revenue ($120 billion over 25 years).

Depending on the day – and the bills in question – the 84th Legislature seems headed toward stopping diversions from the highway fund ($600 million per year) and dedicating a portion of either the state’s motor vehicle sales tax or general sales tax ($2-$2.5 billion net of debt service repayment) to the state highway fund.   Furthermore, absent the passage and adoption of a constitutional amendment, this may or may not be a long-term commitment.  In any event, the funding will need to be leveraged with toll solutions where appropriate to achieve any significant inroads in mobility.

It is appropriate to invest new money into the free-access, non-toll system, as HJR 13 and SJR 5 do.  But toll options can expand mobility, and should not be taken off the table.

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