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San Antonio Newspaper Delivers Articulate Case for Tolling

Bill Cramer

Highway users in Texas received an unexpected and powerful message from the Editorial Board of the San Antonio Express-News, in the form of an extended soliloquy on the virtues of tolling.

Texas has had its share of tough moments over tolling in recent years, with a booming population and serious congestion problems colliding with the reality that tax revenues fall far short of what a growing transportation system needs. In typical Texas fashion, everything about the conversation has been big—from tolling projects in some parts of the state worth more than $1 billion, to loud controversies over the validity of tolling itself.

The Express-News editorial should put those doubts to rest, with one of the strongest, most articulate defenses of tolling that we’ve seen.

No More Magical Thinking

“There is some magical thinking out there that somehow this region can continue to grow without the use of toll roads,” the Express-News editorial board wrote two days ago. But “the angst over toll roads is nonsensical and reactionary. A toll does not raise your taxes—but it does reflect that your taxes are not covering the true cost of our transportation needs.”

The editorial points to a recent decision by the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to prioritize funding for toll roads on a key stretch of road as “absolutely the right thing to do.” It notes that the project, along a 23-mile stretch of Loop 1604, “is expected to cost $882 million, but tolls would reduce that cost to taxpayers to $326 million.”

Which means local drivers get the safety and reliability of a road that receives the investment it needs, while still taking pride (as many Texans do) in living in a state with low tax rates.

‘A Toll is a User Fee’

It’s gratifying to see the Express-News’ simple, cogent distinction between tolling and taxation—something that toll critics, and even some longtime supporters, sometimes fail to fully appreciate.

“A toll is a user fee,” the editors state. “If you want to use a road to speed up your commute, then you can pay for that opportunity. But you can always choose to go a different route, and you will benefit from [the absence of] those drivers who do opt for tolls.”

For tolling opponents, the paper suggests an alternative to “railing against the prospect of toll roads here, ignoring the dire state of congestion”: Advocate for a higher state gas tax. The last time Texas increased its tax, to 20¢ per gallon, the year was 1991, Ann Richards was governor, and the minimum wage was $4.25 per hour. “Thanks to inflation, that 20 cents doesn’t go near as far as it used to, even though Texas’ population has surged from 17.4 million to 26 million.”

Yet “state lawmakers have shown zero interest in raising the gas tax, which is exactly why toll roads need to be on the table.”

Ultimately, it’s all about mobility, and the Express-News has a healthy way to deliver it. “The goal here is to keep people moving,” the paper states. “Toll roads help make that happen. We only slow ourselves down when we frame the issue any other way.”

With that kind of thinking, more and more Americans can hope to get the mobility they need, when and where they need it.

Help your organization tell its own tolling story! Sign up today for IBTTA’s Communications and Administration Workshop, March 12-14 in Tampa, Florida.