Better a Gas Tax Hike Than Tolls

RECEIVED Tue., Oct. 5, 2004

Dear Editor,
   I noted that Mike Clark-Madison failed to note that a viable and very obvious option to toll roads was offered and even debated at the last CAMPO meeting (Sept. 13) ["Austin@Large," News, Sept. 17]. Not only did many of the speakers mention increasing the gasoline tax as a more appropriate means of funding the building of Texas roads, but several of the CAMPO board members either agreed or pointed out that CAMPO cannot change the gas tax.
   However, CAMPO can and really should forward such a recommendation to the Texas Legislature and governor's office. Indeed, half of the CAMPO board members are currently elected officials in the Texas House and Senate, not the least of which is Sen. Barrientos.
   The gas tax is highly political and it's very difficult to get through a Texas congress that is underwritten by petroleum and chemical refining corporations. However, we do have it, and it's fixed at 25 cents per gallon. It hasn't changed since 1991, but gas prices certainly have! If nothing else, this tax should have been set as a percentage, as any other sales or property tax is set.
   A gas tax is more proportional and fair to all vehicle operators. A toll road can never do that. If the argument is keeping taxes within the geographical area where they are collected, I would argue that function can be implemented, but I think it's not necessary. Roads are built by the state for the good of all citizens, and while I think Austin has been shorted, that funding still needs to be focused on the more highly populated cities, because that is where the most expensive interchanges and freeways are needed. Toll roads are the worst option, most expensive, and most likely to invite corruption. That has certainly been the history of toll roads in other parts of the U.S.
Russ Hodes
People for Efficient Transportation
   [Mike Clark-Madison responds: Mr. Hodes is right that I didn't say enough about the gas tax. Some quick points: 1) The challenge of getting either a statewide hike or a regional local-option gas tax through the Lege and past the governor are worse than just "very difficult." Half of CAMPO knows this, because they are legislators. Even the House members on CAMPO who oppose toll roads have yet to present a tax-supported alternative. The toll road craze and RMAs and the Mobility Fund and debt financing of highways and all the rest are, quite explicitly, ways for the state to go around the tax-hike mountain. If hiking the tax were practical, we wouldn't be here. 2) In my very first toll road piece ["Austin@Large," News, May 21] I argued that gas-tax financing is even more "socialist" than the public schools (or public transit), and while I don't want to presume Mr. Hodes' personal beliefs, I haven't heard very much from the PET/Toll Party side that makes me think they're into such a thing. Quite the opposite, in fact. I find it very hard, logically, to square the PETters' oft-expressed recourse to private-sector business models (i.e., supply and demand), and concerns about the inflationary effects of tolls, with a higher, across-the-board, proportional gas tax. Perhaps I can be enlightened. In any event, the gas-tax debate does nothing to resolve public dissension about the roads themselves, which is motivating the left flank of the anti-toll contingent. Resolving that tension is job No. 1 for the opposition here. Beyond that, those who would like to see a bill in the next Lege authorizing a regional, local-option, voter-approved, supplemental gas tax would do well to use their energies to lobby for that outcome right now, instead of seeking to recall City Council members – who really do have absolutely no power on that score.]
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