Monday, March 02, 2009

Stimulus Money for Toll Roads: Good Policy

Let the political games begin. Now that the stimulus bill funds are being allocated by state and local authorities, well-meaning but terribly misinformed citizens and grand-standing politicians are cutting off our economic noses.

The purpose of the stim bill was to create immediate spending through public investment projects, the so-called "shovel ready" projects that retain and create infrastructure jobs immediately.

The following story from The Houston Chronicle is about the current kerfuffle among perennially disgruntled citizen activists and perennially grand-standing politician enablers of both parties.

As Stephen Colbert would say, the idea that allocating stim funds to toll roads is an unfair application of public funds sounds "truthy," meaning it has a ring of truth and so often is accepted as truth by people who miss the larger context that stands their "truthy" argument on its head. First:

$700 million eyed for toll projects
Grand Parkway's among 21 Texas roads in allocation

By ROSANNA RUIZ Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Feb. 27, 2009, 9:37PM

The Texas Department of Transportation has set aside more than $700 million in economic stimulus funds for toll road projects across the state, sparking criticism and questions about whether the pay-to-drive roads are an appropriate use of the federal dollars. ...

“It’s a total rip-off,” said Terri Hall, director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a nonprofit opposed to toll roads. “That’s not how the money is supposed to be used.” ...

“I think it’s unfortunate that the discussion about these funds has eclipsed the broader discussion about the state’s transportation needs,” TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said. ... [emphasis added]
I have to side completely with TxDOT on this. Toll roads, whether you like them are not, are not the issue right now. But that's really the beef that Hall has, namely toll roads in general and not this specific application of funds which has a different purpose of employing people and getting funds flowing into the cash-starved economy. I can respect Hall's citizen activism.

The political grandstanding, however, not so much:
U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also questioned the use of stimulus funds on toll roads.

“It concerns me that state officials would prioritize toll projects that will hit already hard-pressed Texas drivers with additional fees,” he said... [emphasis added]
And so where has Olson's opposition to Texas toll-roads been in the last decade as the state turned more and more to toll road construction financing to avoid "public spending" to improve highways and reduce congestion? Yeah, that's what I thought.

For the record, a Democrat in the state legislature, Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, is the one "whose criticism led the commission to postpone its vote." Grandstanding has no party affiliation.

A reminder of reality from the U.S. House Transportation Committee:
The economic stimulus bill does not address toll roads, only that proposed projects satisfy requirements to create jobs and promote economic growth, said Jim Berard, a spokesman for the U.S. House Transportation Committee.
That's right. "[C]reate jobs and promote economic growth." Whether funds are used for immediate construction of schools, charter schools, highways, toll roads, government buildings -- public infrastructure regardless of how it's publicly financed is good stimulus. Now cannot be the time to piddle over the relative merits of various infrastructure projects. Is the project ready? Will it employ people? Will it create a public benefit when it's complete? That's all we need to know.

In addition to $181 million for the Grand Parkway, TxDOT’s list includes an additional $50 million for four new ramps connecting the Eastex Freeway and Beltway 8. ...
The above ramps proposal will connect a key alternative to the free I-45 north corridor into downtown Houston to the 2nd outer loop around Houston in a free portion (it becomes toll as it circles toward the west). These toll roads are not sparsely used. From before 6AM in the mornings until after 9AM and again for a few hours in the evening, these "toll" roads are used by thousands and thousands of motorists seeking the most efficient route around the city. The flyovers onto the 2nd outer ring will create even more incentive for motorists to use the toll roads and will off-set public tax dollars required to maintain these highways. You might argue with the idea, but you can't argue about the merits of the project at this moment in time.

There is a 3rd outer ring under construction in "segments" that will relieve traffic on Houston's other clogged highways that are mostly free. Better traffic capacity will benefit everyone, whether they choose to pay the tolls or stay on free highways. It's the driver's choice at any given moment on any given day.
Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, whose precinct includes Segment E of the Grand Parkway, said the segment satisfies the federal stimulus mandate as a “shovel-ready” project. ...

Radack [argued] that a planned overhaul of U.S. 290 is not at the appropriate stage for the stimulus funds. ...
Radack points out that activists' demands that funds be used for a free northwest corridor (a "spoke" from the hub, so to speak) are misinformed because the project they advocate does not meet the criteria of the stim funds: the money couldn't be spent immediately and would not create immediate jobs. Yes, sometimes this governing stuff is actually kind of complicated.

Finally, the scale of the spending on the toll and free portions of area highways is of sufficient magnitude to achieve the express purpose of the stim funding:
The proposed Grand Parkway would span 180 miles, circling around the Houston area, at a projected cost of $4.8 billion. Segment E calls for a 15-mile, four-lane toll road that would connect the Katy Freeway and U.S. 290 at an estimated cost of $330 million, according to the Harris County Toll Road Authority. ...