Policy must be re-examined
Frisco Enterprise Editorial Board
State bureaucrats, aided by an absence of political leadership from members of the Legislature in the affected communities, appear to have won the war of attrition that will result in tolls being added to State Highway 121 in Collin County.
We thank Frisco Mayor Pro Tem Maher Maso for being courageous enough to have stood up against the wave of mass conformity that eventually swept over city councils and for his having raised a series of substantial questions that still remain unanswered, among them:
*Toll roads can be helpful. Dallas North Tollway is an example. But tolls as a tool for financing all future highways — a policy supported by Gov. Rick Perry’s appointee, Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation – “is not a good long-term plan.” And, even more unfortunately, the Regional Transportation Council became a Perry-Williamson puppet by not recommending the North Texas Tollway Authority proposal, which would have ensured maximum return for Collin County.
*Drivers already pay gas taxes to build roads. State bureaucrats claim this revenue is insufficient to meet construction demands. But that is not the point. As Maso put it, “This is a prime example of double taxation,” pure and simple.
*Tolls from this project are going to provide an abundant and tempting revenue flow – enough not just to cover the costs of the project, per se, but other road-building projects elsewhere in Texas. Gas-tax revenues already are siphoned off for non-highway programs while the toll movement progresses. Why should residents of Collin County have to pay this, especially when city councils and the commissioners’ court expressly said they want all the money to stay local. “As many have said, it’s Robin Hood all over again,” said Masa.
*Only toll tags will be allowed to make payments. What about people who don’t have them, say, visitors from other states?
Even though these major issues remain unresolved, the project now seems to be moving forward. In these kinds of public policy debates, one does reach a point when debate must be closed and action must be taken.
And that point has arrived, as another out-of-the-box thinker, Frisco City Manager George Purefoy, said.
Purefoy worked hard on the question and deserves great credit for his efforts to produce an innovative solution. But practical reality, as he pointed out, now demands compromise. The plan decided upon will not draw uniform agreement, but, he said, “everybody gets a little bit of what they want.”
Still, the unanswered questions raised by Maso demand examination.
The decision on S.H. 121 does not end this debate; it most certainly does not resolve issues surrounding the charging of tolls for highway use, in particular the idea that every new highway should have them, which is a radical departure from traditional road funding as part of public infrastructure. It must be studied very carefully.
Legislators in the communities affected by the S.H. 121 disagreement should take the initiative to conduct a statewide review of road finances and produce practicable, realistic recommendations to guide these projects in the future. Collin County commissioners took a tentative step toward enlisting stronger support from legislators on Valentine’s Day when they considered asking them to draft legislation to limit the transportation department’s ability to force cities and counties to accept comprehensive development agreements with private companies to operate toll roads.
That is a step in the right direction, but the broad policies governing highway finance and who decides how they should be implemented must be reconsidered before, for many Texans, it simply becomes too expensive to drive.