Austin @ Large: For Whom the Road Tolls

CTRMA highway plan avoids crossing the double yellow line

Austin @ Large: For Whom the Road Tolls
Illustration By Doug Potter

"A little pessimistic, don't you think?" So commented our peerless illustrator Doug Potter when we discussed the idea for the drawing above. Well, maybe so, but it also strikes me as ironic; right now, the people who will benefit the most from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's $2.2 billion toll road system – suburban commuters – are the ones squawking the loudest over it. Progressives, typically the first to stomp on any new highway plans, have been rather muted in comparison – perhaps because a toll-road system is better than the concrete nightmares it replaces. And everyone else ... well, they're heading somewhere else.

I'm apparently a heretic on this issue, not finding much in the CTRMA plan that makes me disinclined to support it. I think all (or at least most) highways should be toll roads, and I don't have much problem tolling existing capacity – particularly on roads like Loop 360 or South MoPac, which should have carried tolls from day one. The right wing, with its monotonous litanies of praise to the free market, should agree with me. People should pay for at least part of what they use, just as we expect people to pay to ride the bus. (True congestion pricing would be the best answer, but tolls are a first step.)

If the GOP thinks the revenue sharing inherent in Robin Hood is so vile, then they should be hopped up about how we finance roads – with a gas tax that is not only regressive but disconnected from the actual demands placed by actual drivers on the road network, along with local funds paid by the cities and counties where the roads are, which often is not where the drivers on those roads come from. In short, it's a socialist system, but one that the right wing has not only accepted, but has come to view as its entitlement. I understand why it's unlikely to change as much as it should, even with a toll-road system, but I've never been convinced that the philosophical stance of the highway hos has ever risen above the level of mere selfishness.

We Pay as They Go

Hence the noise being directed from the suburbs toward the CTRMA – which will take its plan back to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization for a second public hearing in June, followed by action in July to make it part of CAMPO's official long-range transportation plan. Two members of the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board, Rep. Terry Keel and Travis Co. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, have already proclaimed they'll vote against the plan if it includes, as it does now, two short segments of suburban highway (South MoPac at William Cannon, and U.S. 290 west of the Y in Oak Hill) that are already under construction.

I question the practical wisdom of tolling one little stretch of an otherwise free road, and I can guarantee that those projects will be so unpopular for years to come that the CTRMA will spend years dealing with pressure to get those tolls removed, so they might as well drop the idea now. But that's not what Keel and Daugherty are talking about; instead, we hear clarion cries for equity and fairness. (Daugherty, with his stopped-clock predictability, wants to take Capital Metro's money to keep these roads free, which is just asinine, crossing the line from GOP socialism into outright theft.)

The knee-jerk opposition to paying to drive, disguised by poses of righteousness, is what has forced CTRMA to design and market a system that only tolls new capacity on roads that already exist. Practically speaking, I think this is rather clever, because it won't take many backups on the free frontage lanes to make those tolls seem attractive, and it's responsible planning for a region that's trying to encourage density and redevelopment. But again, that's not why they're doing it.

Virtues of Necessity

Why are they doing it? Well, frankly, because they have no choice. The Lege and the Texas Department of Transportation – showing a modicum of fortitude wholly absent in the school-finance debacle – have more-or-less decreed that all new roads will be toll roads, because otherwise the money just ain't gonna be there. (Whether it is actually not there, or just politically not there, is a question I'll leave to others.) Which I suppose raises the question of whether there should be new roads (or new lanes on existing roads) at all, which takes us across the double yellow line, to the left side of the highway.

I think I yield to few people in the extent of my distaste for the profligate waste of space and money the land pimps and highway hos have wrought, but I also think my progressive friends are wrong to deny that our ever-growing region – if not now, at least in its future – needs more highway capacity; that is what "multi-modal" means. Putting that capacity in existing corridors – which can simultaneously be transit corridors – in amounts that have already been accepted as part of the CAMPO plan, and not building brand-new routes, as has been so often proposed before (and again with Gov. Rick Perry's absurd Trans Texas Corridor scheme), and then tolling those new lanes, seems to me a rather responsible course of action here, which I think explains why progressives are not screaming as loud as they have in the past.

But I'm puzzled by the lack of progressive voices actually supporting at least the principles behind the CTRMA project – making the case that tolls are not a necessary evil (as the CTRMA is forced to pretend) but an actual tool we can use to our benefit. There are, I think, valid questions to be asked about the CTRMA's financials, but as presented so far, the progressive case against tolls is marred by contradiction: the roads will encourage more driving and discourage transit, but they'll also go bankrupt because not enough people will drive on them. Perhaps these can both be true, but they can also both be false.

Yes, sprawl and auto addiction are bad. But the proper response is not to fight the roads – or, more properly, keep fighting a losing battle against the roads – but to get serious about responsible land use, a goal that can be furthered by tolls. (Toll roads have toll plazas, which can be multi-modal interchanges and the focal points of just the sort of dense nodes of redevelopment the region has supposedly embraced, which would in turn support transit.) That would help us create a truly diverse transportation system that meets the needs of a truly diverse region – the suburbanites, the progressives, and everyone else. end story

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highways; toll roads, Toll roads, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, CTRMA, Terry Keel, Gerald Daugherty, U.S. 290 West, South MoPac, Loop 360, multi-modal, density, redevelopment, transit, land use

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