Just over one year ago, at the height of public outcry over toll roads, the Policy Board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) unanimously passed a set of covenants to govern the use of toll revenue collected from the Phase II toll roads. The covenants generally require that toll revenues stay within two miles of the road on which they were generated. The covenants allow for diversion of excess toll revenues from one toll road corridor to other projects only after specific public input and a 2/3 vote of the CAMPO Policy Board. Finally, the covenants require that tolls be reduced and eventually eliminated after the debt for the toll road has been retired and potential improvement projects within the corridor have been exhausted. On Monday, the CAMPO Policy Board will consider overturning some of these covenants, including the public meeting requirements.
The first of the toll roads formerly known as Phase II is 290E, also known as the Manor Expressway. Because the project cannot stand on its own merits from a financing perspective the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) is proposing to “backstop” the debt financing of 290E with toll revenue from 183A through the creation of a “system.” In this system comprised of 290E and 183A, toll revenue and resultant debt capacity/obligation for both roads would be commingled and belong to the system, not to the transportation shed in which the user fees were collected. This diversion of revenue is exactly the circumstance the covenants were designed to address.
Under this circumstance the public comment provisions in the covenants should kick in. But, they haven’t. The covenants require that a Statement of Purpose be developed by the CAMPO Policy Board and that public hearings be held both region-wide and within the donor corridor. Instead, the acting chair of CAMPO without consultation with the CAMPO Policy Board has declared a Statement of Purpose and an alternate public comment plan.
The covenants were passed at a time when the reputation and credibility of CAMPO were at an all time low. The public felt that CAMPO withheld information, stifled public input and that decisions were made out of the public eye or with insufficient information. The public comment provisions of the covenants were meant to turn the page on that era. While public meetings take time, money and can become contentious, there was an understanding that citizen participation leads to better government decisions. That unanimous commitment to a fair and open process has been ignored in favor of the acting chair’s alternative.
In addition to the public comment provisions, the covenants require a two-thirds vote of the CAMPO Policy Board to divert toll revenue from one toll project to another outside the transportation corridor. I will not be among that two-thirds majority. The roads in this proposed system are 14 miles apart. The commuters in these two corridors have no significant overlap. One argument made by toll road supporters is that tolls are not really taxes, they are user fees paid by those who use the specific roads. If one believes this argument (I don’t), then why should we create a system where the tolls paid by a driver in northwest Travis County are used to finance a road 14 miles away in eastern Travis County?
We need a comprehensive and integrated regional transportation system including not just roads, but also rail, rapid bus and HOV. We need a broad-based revenue stream as the primary source of funding for that system. The CTRMA has the statutory authority to build that system. But, the organization has no reliable and broad-based revenue stream to create the true “system financing” it begs for. Without that broad-based revenue stream its credit worthiness is stymied and it must continue to borrow from toll payers over here to benefit toll payers over there. To keep this carrousel of toll backed debt spinning the CTRMA concentrates on toll roads to the exclusion of any other mode of transportation even when there is excess revenue in a tolled corridor in which rail, rapid bus and HOV are lacking. The broad-based revenue stream needed by the CTRMA to create a true system has been and should continue to be the gas tax.
It is a fact that paying for road construction through the use of tolls is more expensive than paying for that construction through a gas tax. It is a fact that tolls place a heavier burden on a fraction of those who use our road system while gas taxes spread the burden of our road system among all who use it. CAMPO, the CTRMA and the good folks of Central Texas should tell the Legislature to brace up and stop diversion of the state gas tax; to index the state gas tax; to borrow on the state gas tax and establish a “backstop fund” available to entities like the CTRMA for road projects and transit projects; to allow a local option regional gas tax. Broad-based gas taxes augmented by local tolls and other user fees will build a multi-modal and equitable system. Heavy reliance on local toll revenue will not.
I have pledged to address transportation planning and funding in a comprehensive manner. The CTRMA proposal seeks to work around the failures of our state Department of Transportation and Legislature rewarding their fiscal irresponsibility. We are asked to do more but the Legislature refuses to give local entities optional tools which they can employ. If we continue this band-aid approach, we will never achieve a comprehensive solution and we will continue to be stuck with a one dimensional system financed on the backs of a small portion of the population. I can’t support that approach.