Poole is the Reason Foundation’s director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust transportation fellow. He was invited to speak at the transportation forum organized by Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes (R-Pct. 3).
In his presentation “Rethinking Texas Highways,” Poole argued that private-public partnership tolled roadways can solve a variety of issues, such as congestion, deferred maintenance, and a decline in fuel tax revenue.
“Texas really needs to change course on this stuff,” Poole told the audience.
He asserted that states should “treat highways like utilities” by requiring customers to pay a price based on the amount of their use.
Poole also suggested that this model offers a better return on investment because those who finance it expect reasonable projections for use. He also believes that revenue-funded roads are better maintained because the ongoing maintenance costs are built into the original financing.
In Poole’s suggested model, the toll lanes or roads would be financed by equity and revenue bonds, the user payments would cover the capital and operating costs, and the rates would be regulated by an arms-length public agency.
Texas had examples of these 20 years ago, which Poole suggested were a model for the nation. However, in 2007 the state Legislature instituted a moratorium on new toll projects with private companies.
In his view, Texas’ biggest need is to add express toll lanes to its highways. Poole believes they offer a solution to reduce congestion and emissions for the fast-growing North Texas region.
He said the commonly seen high-occupancy vehicle-managed lanes don’t provide the same benefits as express toll lanes.
They often fail, Poole noted, because families use the lane for carpooling, which doesn’t reduce vehicular traffic, and lots of people use the lane without having multiple passengers in their car.
“They don’t work without a price. The price is what manages the lane,” Poole told the audience.
Poole acknowledged that there are opponents who argue that tolls are the same as taxes and that failing toll roads will be bailed out by the government.
While some toll roads have failed, Poole claimed that none have been bailed out by the government. He asserted that express toll lanes are a “choice lane” and a driver can always choose to use the free lanes.
During his first campaign in 2014, Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to fix Texas roads without the use of tolls. He reiterated the commitment in 2017.
In 2014, voters approved a Texas constitutional amendment to designate a portion of oil and natural gas production taxes to the state highway fund. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, $13.3 billion has been deposited in the fund through that mechanism.
In 2015, Texas voters approved Proposition 7 which dedicated a portion of sales and use taxes to constructing public roadways other than toll roads. As of Fiscal Year 2022, $13.2 billion of those monies had been deposited in the state highway fund.
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Kim Roberts is a regional reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.