February 23, 2007

The Austin Chamber of Commerce loves them some tolls

Recently I got a mailer from TakeOnTraffic.org, which is an education initiative funded by the Greater Austin CoC to inform the people of Austin that they need roads. Masters of the obvious, these folks.

Tolls, tolls and more tolls appears to be on tap if the GACoC has their way. One has to wonder what they'll get out of it, especially since I'd be willing to bet most members of the CoC aren't so much for tolls... they just want traffic off the roads (we'll get to that in a bit). Most of the site is pretty worthless (the design's not bad... the information is. For example there is a lot of information about why we need roads. Which is pretty stupid because no one is arguing that point save maybe morons). The Transportation Funding section is the real meat of the site... the rest of it is as substantial and worthwhile as a rice cake.

Gasoline taxes. This is the main source of revenue for highways right now. However, the state gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1991. With gas prices already reaching record highs, it’s unlikely that the state will ever raise this tax enough to pay for all of Texas’ unmet transportation needs.

Yeah, not so much at record highs anymore and around current, lower, prices, alternatives still make a lot of sense which puts an upward cap on gasoline prices. However, let's not even get into that. Let's focus instead on the idea that the state won't raise the gas tax. This is as much BS as anything else on this site. The state has been made very aware that it's cheaper to do that than anything else.

However, it may soon be possible for regions like Central Texas to institute local gasoline taxes. To meet our immediate needs, a Travis County gas tax would have to be set between 30 and 50 cents per gallon. This could have a severe impact on lower-income residents and on the regional economy.

That number for the gas tax is just wrong. We already know that it'll cost much less, even without indexing which the state is going to eventually pass. Further, the idea that gas taxes hurt lower-income residents more than tolls is absurd. For one thing, if tolls are used for expansion of 35 through central Austin, we'll all be paying the price. That's the most obvious issue. The less obvious issue is that tolls are going to increase the cost of goods sold for every business through increased transport to market costs. That'll be passed on even to consumers who don't use cars.

The other reason we'll be effected is that traffic won't disappear on 35 because there isn't a free 130 to take traffic away. 130 was always intended to be a bypass to 35 through Austin Metro for traffic moving north to south and vice versa. We already know that most trucking companies aren't going to use the toll roads. Which means that traffic in central Austin will continue to be bad and everyone will suffer. Take the tolls off 130 and watch the congestion on 35 disappear.

Finally, let's consider the only cost metric that makes sense, cost per mile. On the toll roads, the absolute best you can do is $0.12 per mile. With the gas tax (at even an inflated $0.17 per gallon), the per mile break down if your car (like most) gets 20 miles per gallon is $0.0085 per mile. Less than a penny per mile for new roads and improvements to existing roads is hell of a lot better than $0.12 per mile.

Sales taxes. This is main source of revenue for public transportation in Central Texas. Right now, state law limits the combined sales tax paid in local communities. However, Texas may allow regions to raise this limit to fund transportation improvements.

To meet our immediate needs would mean adding two or three cents to the sales tax paid now in Travis County. Sales tax can be a volatile revenue source, going up and down dramatically depending on economic trends. This makes it tricky to use sales tax to fund projects that, even under the best conditions, take years to build.

Nah, leave the sales tax alone. For one thing, it's more regressive than any other tax. For another, it'll just put a clamp on economic activity and more and more people will travel out of the area to shop (just ask people in NoCal how often they drive up to Southern Oregon).

Property taxes. Bonds repaid with property taxes are the main source of revenue for city streets and county roads in Central Texas. Also, tax-backed bonds have paid for right-of-way for current highway projects. The region has already ramped up its use of tax-backed bonds to get projects like SH130 moving.

To fund the system we need would require increasing Travis County property taxes as much as $200 a year for the next 20 years. Devoting such a large chunk of local bond capacity to transportation means less money for other capital improvements—like police and fire stations, jails and cultural facilities, parks and libraries—that are funded through tax-backed bonds.

Yeah, property taxes are kinda dumb anyway as they are the ultimate delinking of a tax to the ability to pay it. Just because you live in an $850,000 home doesn't mean you can pay almost $26,500 in property taxes. Yeah, let's crap all over the this idea.

Tolls. The tolls collected on new roads like SH 130 pay back the bonds that financed initial construction. Once those bonds are paid off, tolls can be lowered to the level needed to simply pay for maintenance. Or they can be used to fund other needed projects — like sidewalks, bike lanes, or bus service — that help make up a comprehensive system.

Not so much because tolls on 130 are dedicated to TXDoT. Much like the tolls on the North Dallas Tollway, they aren't going away. EVER. The Chamber of Commerce is definitely inaccurate here. Show me the mechanism that makes them go away then, maybe, we'll talk. So far there's nothing. Of course, you can argue that revenue from one road will go to build another and if you're going to do that (benefiting two different user groups) then you may as well implement a gas tax that covers everyone as cheaply as possible.

Tolls have been controversial in Central Texas, especially for projects where new toll lanes would be built in existing highway corridors. (No project in Central Texas involves tolling existing highway lanes.) Clear policies and accountable leadership are needed to make sure tolling is implemented wisely. However, compared to taxes, tolls have the advantage of only affecting the people who choose to drive on those roads, while still producing enough revenue to make a difference.

Yeah, the problem, as Senator Watson is finding out, is not accountability, it's the fairness of tolls themselves and how much more expensive they are than gas taxes. That's why tolls are going to be DOA and our leaders that support them are going to have some real problems down the road. Tolls almost cost the Chair of the House Transportation Committee his seat in this last cycle (what, you thought we'd get through this without mentioning Krusee even once?).

There is, of course, an upward density limit that forces a conversion to mass transit and less emphasis on roads. In most of Austin, which is a very compact city for the western US, some would say we are already there. That's what I'd like to see policy makers focus on as well expansion of (and improvements to) the freeway system. Even those who live in the burbs have, to some extent, been subsidizing public transportation through sales taxes for years. I point this out because I'm sick of hearing the argument that central Austin doesn't want to subsidize freeways for the burbs. One has to ask of the short sighted people, 'Who the hell do you think subsidized MoPac and 35?'

Decades ago there was a debate over tolling vs. gas taxes for transportation in this country. For the most part, tolls lost because they were more expensive.


Posted by mcblogger at February 23, 2007 12:03 AM

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I guess I'm one of those short-sighted people; but the subsidy equation is absolutely off - the residents of Austin essentially paid for (and continue to pay for) I-35 and Mopac, and a good part of the benefits accrue to suburbanites who pay far less than their fair share.

The penny sales tax to Capital Metro is a drop in the bucket compared to the road subsidy which flows overwhelmingly FROM urban TO suburban.

Agreed on the transit angle, BTW, and don't think I like the Chamber. They're just pushing for Campo's Crappy Plan But Quicker. But Campo's Crappy Plan is still better than Daugherty's Crappy Plan (which, I bet, is what most of the anti-tollers really want as well) - kill transit entirely and dump the sales tax into freeways for suburbanites.

Posted by: mdahmus [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2007 03:42 PM

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