Central Texas toll roads are win-win

This commentary was published in the Austin Amerrican Statesman
Friday, January 16, 2009.

COMMENTARY
Jim Skaggs, LOCAL CONTRIBUTOR

Central Texas toll roads have proven to be an overwhelming success in reducing travel time, providing improved quality of life for thousands of residents and increasing efficiency for hundreds of businesses. Toll roads are winners for everyone. Users, with the choice of toll or tax-funded roads, are financing toll roads, reducing their travel time and cutting congestion and travel time on non-tolled roads. Everyone in the corridor saves time.

More than 99 percent of Central Texans’ daily trips and passenger miles are on roadways. With limited toll road service in Central Texas, people have signaled their approval by purchasing 370,000 TxTags.

Toll road construction is not costing us, our children or our grandchildren, as some allege, unless we choose to use the roadways because enhanced mobility is worth the fee. Enhanced mobility provides access to better jobs, better employees for employers, affordable homes and all of the region’s other offerings.

Area leaders evaluated alternatives for funding needed roads and found toll funding was necessary in this time of need. Why? Gas tax proceeds, traditionally the major source of road financing, have substantially decreased, per driver, for three reasons: 1) Vehicles have become much more efficient, using less fuel per mile; 2) federal and state gas taxes are fixed at 18.4 and 20 cents per gallon and have not increased for more than 15 years; and 3) there are numerous diversions of road funds, which in Texas includes education. The eroded buying power of road dollars is compounded with rising construction costs. Gas tax funding, which has served us for more than 50 years, must be replaced or augmented to correlate costs with use and recognize increases in fuel economy and the use of alternative fuels and power sources.

Good roads and connections are critical to the daily lives of more than 1.4 million area drivers. There are no societal benefits in wasteful spending of taxpayer funds to subsidize people with car alternatives. However, wasteful spending does degrade social equity by increasing transit fares and reducing service for those needing transit daily and have no alternatives.

Regional leaders emphasize rail, including lines from Austin to Leander and Elgin and a circulator from the Mueller redevelopment through the University of Texas and downtown to the airport. Trains require more than 99 percent of taxpayers to subsidize less than one-quarter of 1 percent of travelers. Each daily rider from Leander to Austin will be subsidized yearly with about $20,000. Fewer riders from smaller Elgin will require higher subsidies. Trains have a negligible impact on congestion and can do nothing buses cannot do equally, or better, including passenger capacity, speed and safety. Buses can flexibly adapt to changing demand and cost far less than trains. Diesel trains are not “environmentally friendly,” producing more emissions per passenger mile than vehicles.

The region should continue to address roadway deficiencies and effective transit alternatives, including bus expansions and car pooling. The Austin-Leander rail service should be monitored to evaluate its performance before adding more lines. All of that will better serve regional mobility, enhance our quality of life and increase economic vitality.

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