Yes, the Texas Council of Engineering Companies has a self-interest in roadbuilding, needless to say, but so does everyone who drives on Texas roads. The point of the TCEC statement, as the headline says, is that there is a cost to doing nothing. TRANSPORTATION: THE COST OF DOING NOTHING No one wants to pay more for anything, but in transportation it’s becoming more and more clear that there is a cost – in both time and money – to doing nothing. This week, the Funding Subcommittee of the Texas House Select Committee on Transportation Funding heard testimony from Frank Bliss, a commercial real estate developer in the Metroplex, who investigated the cost to taxpayers in increased fuel costs through decreased fuel efficiency when traffic goes from free-flowing to “stop and go.” Mr. Bliss used data from projected congestion trends in the DFW area and EPA estimates of highway and city fuel efficiency for different kinds of vehicles to estimate the aggregate cost incurred when congestion increases the amount of driving that takes place under city conditions (19.6 mph) versus highway conditions (48.3 mph). He concluded that, depending on the fuel efficiency of the vehicle, the increased cost to the average taxpayer if no action is taken would range from $250 to $350 per year just in extra fuel costs. Increased time in congested traffic would also cost time (204 hours each year) that could be spent at home or in the community – and would cost businesses productivity. His conclusion: “Without adequate funding for transportation, as growth occurs we pay for the lack of infrastructure by buying more gasoline and having less time for our families, communities, and the businesses we represent. Instead of . . . [paying] to fund new roads, we’re giving it to the gas companies. If we understood the math, I think we might change our attitudes and put the money where it can help us the most.” The state’s transportation user fee is set at the same rate as 1991 (well before the world wide web was invented) and its purchasing power has declined forty percent. But anyone who thinks drivers are not paying more to drive has not looked at the pace of toll road construction and gross toll revenue collections in Texas over the past fifteen years, as toll authorities work to meet the capacity demands that aren’t being paid for by user fees. This rate of increase is essentially equivalent to a one-half cent per gallon annual increase in the state’s transportation user fee over the period –- and it is driven by a shortfall in user fee-funded investment. Our point is this: If Texas continues to grow at a pace of 1,000 new residents a day, highway users don’t get to decide whether or not we will pay more to use the highways. We will pay more. We only get to decide how we want to pay. If we decide we don’t want to pay through increased user fees (the most broad-based way), then we will pay more with our time and pay more in tolls. It’s that simple. * * * * Rick Perry can say that he hasn’t raised taxes, but tolls are more expensive than gasoline taxes, and they have surged upwards. The rate of toll revenue increase cited above — equivalent to a 1/2 cent per year increase in the gasoline tax (I’m not going to adopt the euphemism of “user fee”) since the last tax increase in 1991 — figures out, over 20 years, to be identical to a 10-cent increase in the gasoline tax. Critics of the gasoline tax have a point, that it has lost a lot of its revenue-raising potential due to greater fuel economy, but raising the tax is still better than stagnancy. We could have built a lot of free roads with a ten-cent increase in the tax. Instead, we have spent this decade fighting over unpopular toll roads and even more unpopular proposals to privatize roads. At any point, Perry could have stepped forward and said that we needed to raise the gasoline tax — or presented the public with a referendum of the two alternatives, toll roads or gasoline taxes. Instead, we took the most costly approach: borrowing. We spent billions of dollars on bonds and hundreds of millions on interest payments. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Or, I should say, politics, politics, politics.
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