The Temptation to Make Somebody Else Pay for Roads

By moving to shift highway costs away from those who benefit the most, Texas is taking a troubling detour.
April 24, 2015 AT 9:00 AM
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

We all enjoy the benefits of things that cost money, but we often have an irresistible desire to pass the expense on to someone else. It rarely ends well when we indulge that particular slice of human nature, which seems to be the path Texas is taking when it comes to highway funding.

For years, Texas was a leader in innovations such as using public-private partnerships to build, operate and maintain new toll roads and developing express lanes that cost more to use but guarantee shorter travel times. These approaches attracted private capital and provided a sustainable way for the fast-growing state to pay for its burgeoning highway needs. They also created a system under which roadways are funded primarily by those who benefit from them instead of from broad-based tax revenues.

But the desire to get something for nothing is threatening to put an end to all that. A 2014 poll from Texas A&M's Transportation Institute found that while 64 percent of Texans supported increased transportation funding, they also ranked building more toll roads as the least desirable of 15 alternatives for solving the state's transportation problems.

Seizing on that backlash, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott campaigned last fall against building new toll roads. In his first state-of-the-state address as governor earlier this year, he unveiled a plan to increase transportation funding without new toll roads by using revenue from a voter-approved tax on gas and oil production, ending some of the diversion of transportation funds to other uses, and amending the state constitution to dedicate half of sales-tax receipts to transportation.

A number of bills pending in the Texas legislature would go even further by preventing state highway money from being spent on toll projects and requiring that tolls be removed once a roadway's construction costs have been paid off. One bill would even require the Texas Department of Transportation to come up with a plan to eliminate all toll roads in the state within 30 years.

These proposals are problematic on many levels. Mileage-based funding allows for the use of important demand-management tools, such as charging higher tolls during rush hour, which can reduce the need for new construction.

Today, there is strong support for transportation investment in Texas. But loosening the link between who benefits from transportation assets and who pays for them could lead to reduced funding over time.

Public transit might be one of the big losers in a system under which transportation is funded by broad-based taxes. Toll revenue could be an important source of transit funding in Texas' fast-growing cities. But, failing to see how they would benefit from a robust transit system, motorists might not support funding for it even though it would ease their commutes by taking vehicles off the road, bring environmental benefits and further mitigate the need for additional roadway construction.

The model of having beneficiaries pay has long been used successfully for other infrastructure services such as electricity, water, telephones and cable. Texans who make heavy use of their state's highways may be able to shift the costs to other entities today, but they probably won't like the transportation system they get in the long term.