Richard Greene

We all pay for new roads, but users pay for toll roads

The North Tarrant Express project (Texas 121/183 in Hurst, Euless and Bedford) has toll lanes in the middle.
The North Tarrant Express project (Texas 121/183 in Hurst, Euless and Bedford) has toll lanes in the middle. Star-Telegram

Do you think gridlock on our region’s roads seems to be getting worse?

It does to me, so I’ve attended some recent meetings on the subject to see the plans for dealing with the situation.

Experts in the field of providing enough funding to keep congestion on our highways at current levels have long been telling us that doing so requires about $5 billion more every year.

Oh, wait. That’s the figure if we keep building toll roads. If we don’t, the annual cost to keep things from getting worse practically doubles.

While the Legislature in the last session didn’t exactly kill any possibility of building new toll roads, it came very close.

Our elected officials say they have been listening to their constituents, and we don’t like toll roads because we have to pay to drive on them.

I guess that means we must think non-toll roads are free.

If we do, we must have suspended our sense of reality, because there are no free roads. In one way or another, we all pay for the “free” highways, byways, freeways and thoroughfares of our state and our communities.

Toll roads are mostly paid for by the people who use them. No one is required to enter a toll road unless they want to. If you don’t like paying tolls, use roads without tolls.

Those who choose toll roads make more room on the non-toll roads. It’s freedom to choose how we spend our money instead of the government deciding for us — a basic libertarian/conservative principle at work.

But the toll road choice for solving mobility solutions for the future has been shelved for now. It will take things getting worse (a certainty) before we again consider the faster and cheaper alternative of these public/private partnerships that have produced some great new roads in recent times.

Indeed, there are alternatives, and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute has done a terrific job in studying funding options and strategies in their 2015 research.

An increase in the fuel tax of 10 cents per gallon will annually produce that $5 billion needed to keep the same level of congestion we have now.

Or we could increase the state sales tax by half of 1 percent, produce almost $10 billion every year and really accelerate highway construction, thus making things better instead of the low standard of keeping them from getting worse.

Just a 1 percentage point increase in the vehicle sales tax alone would bring in $1.5 billion, and there are many other forms of tax and fee increases enumerated in the institute’s report.

The one common denominator in all those options is that we all pay more to build new roads.

Instead of raising new revenue (tax increases), the Legislature has put before us on the Nov. 3 ballot a proposition that would redirect a portion of existing vehicle sales taxes toward road building. This would fund maybe half of what we need starting in 2018.

Last year, we approved a measure allocating some oil and natural gas tax revenue for roads. That is supposed to provide another $1.7 billion.

Still doesn’t add up to the amount we need to keep things from getting worse, does it?

I’m going to vote “yes” on the November proposition because it’s better than not voting for it. But better solutions to keep the Texas economy growing as our population continues to explode will be back on the table one day.

Maybe between now and then, the notion of letting people pay directly when they drive on the roads of the future will become more appealing than such an idea seems today.

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.