Converting existing interstate highways to toll roads travels too far on the road to privatization
Sept. 5, 2007
A recent proposal by the Texas Department of Transportation to buy back stretches of federal interstate highway and convert them to toll roads generates a double take: It hardly seems a serious idea. Yet in its congressional legislative agenda, TxDOT seeks authorizing legislation to do exactly that.
The inequity in allowing investors or the state to profit from a resource already bought and paid for through public tax dollars reveals the disturbing degree to which the department would capitalize on the open road.
Legislators need to face the politically unpalatable need to find an adequate source of tax revenue to build and maintain highways. Instead, Texas and other states have embarked on public-private collaborations that have raised eyebrows and questions about cronyism, transparency, accountability, public control and fair value. Texas legislators passed a two-year moratorium on toll roads in the last session. While weakened by numerous loopholes, the pause offers a chance to take a closer look at this approach.
Former Mayor Bob Lanier, who once chaired the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT's governing board, said there is a place for creating new toll roads to expand capacity. However, he said, in striking a balance between public and private support, it is critical to watch the money and where it goes. There's a danger to urban areas such as Houston, Lanier said, when the state seeks to borrow more than the cost of building the road. The excess is likely to end up funding projects outside our area or even be diverted to general use.
The congressional legislation TxDOT seeks would shift decision-making about this process from the federal government to the state, and state law still requires approval from the voters and county commissioners to create toll roads.
County Judge Ed Emmett said he is in total support of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's response to TxDOT's request — a bill that would ban states from converting existing interstate highways to toll roads.
Hutchison's bill might well be needed to prevent an egregious tilt toward inserting the profit motive into public transportation policy. The political climate does not favor financing our vital public highway system by such straightforward measures as indexing the gasoline tax for inflation. If voters prefer paying at the toll booth rather than the gas pump, they may get their wish.
A lot of fine print in respected policy studies demonstrates that route is by far the most expensive.