Some people like them, some hate them, others tolerate them as a necessary nuisance. Regardless, toll roads are apparently here to stay in Texas. At the recent annual conference for the toll road industry in Austin, Texas leaders including Gov. Rick Perry and TxDot’s executive director Joe Weber praised the state as a leader in the pay road industry. Perry called Texas “the mecca of innovation on transportation infrastructure,” while Weber described toll roads as “vital” to the state’s transportation needs as it deals with crowded roads and a growing population. Moreover, the state’s gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, resulting in an estimated $5 million annual shortfall in the Texas highway fund.
Critics say it’s not about how much money is coming in, but where it is spent. “The toll roads make, I think, $600 million or more per year, they keep raising the fees, and now they want to do a number of other projects,” says Tom Bazan, a Houston transportation activist and longtime critic of METRO. Bazan tells KTRH he is not against toll roads. “The taxes need to come from somewhere,” he says. “If they are specifically from the users and applied towards maintaining the roads, I don’t have a problem with that…they just need to keep it from being diverted to other spending priorities.”
The Harris County Toll Road Authority has several projects currently in the works, including an extension of the Hardy Toll Road to downtown, and widening of the Sam Houston Tollway. In a statement to KTRH, the HCTRA says, “Toll Roads, whether build by TxDot or HCTRA, are just a part of the solution. Toll Roads are not meant for every project.”
Bazan agrees that toll roads are only part of the solution, but he wants to see more drastic change in road funding. “We need more rubber-tired solutions,” he says. “We need to quit wasting the money on urban rail, and quit taking the gasoline tax from the drivers and giving it to things like education.” Texas voters will decide this fall on a ballot measure to divert some of the state’s oil and gas tax revenues to the highway fund.