Officials: Toll roads may be key to Texas’ economic growth

A four-letter word — toll — must re-enter the state’s political vocabulary if Texas is to solve its serious traffic congestion problems that are only getting worse because of continued rapid population growth, local business and civic leaders were told Wednesday.

“We don’t have sufficient funds to cover all of the (road transportation) needs in Texas” without resorting to tolls in some areas, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said during an Opportunity Austin event at the JW Marriott hotel.

Opportunity Austin is the economic development affiliate of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“Everybody in this room knows there is no room on our current road system” for all of the new vehicles anticipated to clog Texas highways in coming years, Watson said.

Watson made the comments after J. Bruce Bugg Jr., chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, told the group that his agency is in the early stages of exploring the possibility of prioritizing some available state road money for congestion-relief projects in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

The transportation commission axed tolls from its toolbox of potential road financing mechanisms late last year after Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, took anti-toll stances.

Bugg, who was appointed by Abbott, said Wednesday that preliminary discussions are underway regarding the possibility of using more than $4 billion annually in new tax money for roads — which Texas voters approved in referendums in 2014 and 2015 — on projects aimed at unclogging the top 100 congestion “choke points” across the state. Thirteen of the choke points are in the Austin area, he said, and 92 are in one of the five major metro areas.

If the new money is just deployed on the top 100 congested roadways, the commission is looking at “what effect that will have” statewide, Bugg said.

He added that his agency is “certainly mindful” that many other regions of Texas are experiencing traffic problems as well, which he said will be taken into consideration. “Congestion is not just an Austin problem or a problem in all these five major metropolitan areas — it’s a Texas problem,” he said.

Later Wednesday, Bugg’s commission heard a presentation on the idea during a previously scheduled work session. Bugg and other commissioners stressed that the presentation was for “discussion purposes only” because the plan is hypothetical, and they took no action on it.

Regardless, Watson said during the Opportunity Austin event that he doubts such a plan would fly statewide.

“Huge parts of the state will never see (road) money again” if the money from the 2014 and 2015 referendums are prioritized to the largest metro areas, Watson said. “That is going to create a policy problem in the state.”

Gary Farmer, chairman of Opportunity Austin 4.0 — the next iteration of the organization’s five-year economic development road map — agreed with Watson that tolls “absolutely” have to be part of the state’s congestion solution.

“Economic development (in Texas) is history if we don’t get new roads,” Farmer said in an interview after the event. “If we want to maintain a quality of life … we need to build these roads.”

He also disputed the notion that Texas residents are predominantly anti-toll, citing the estimated 1 million toll tags that have been issued in the Austin area.

“There’s only two types of roads — tax (funded) or tolls,” Farmer said. “The thing about toll roads (is) you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to.”

Also Wednesday, Opportunity Austin released its annual report for 2017, showing that it had spent about $4 million on economic development initiatives last year on about $3.8 million in revenue. The organization is wrapping up its five-year Opportunity Austin 3.0 road map — which covers 2014 through 2018 — and Treasurer Cindy Matula said it’s normal in later years for expenses to outstrip revenue.

Opportunity Austin is attempting to raise $30 million for its 4.0 plan that will run through 2023 and include a range of new programs, such as efforts to address transportation and affordability issues. For the 3.0 plan, Opportunity Austin raised about $21 million in 2013 out of a targeted $25 million.

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