Topic Thread

  • 1.  Toll Roads, When they should become public property

    Posted 06-27-2022 05:54 PM
    Toll collection as financing has helped sprout an array of new routes and planning initiatives in the US in the last two decades. The complaint heard most often is "when is this thing paid for?" followed by "Why did they pick that route?". Texas, in particular has seen the rise of Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) that have delivered a few badly needed and impressive transportation links and at least one or two controversial ones. I had the opportunity to serve on one of these RMA boards and despite being a board member, I still had more questions when my short term ended than when it began. The overriding one being "When is this thing paid for?" The actual management philosophy was to grow the organization and it's ability to collect revenue. That culture is at odds with the public perception that government sanctioned transportation agencies work to keep costs in line and not act as a perpetual billing entity. That they do indeed have a plan to pay the thing off and turn it over to the state DOT to maintain. The answer, at least in most of Texas is no, they don't. These things are money makers and there is little incentive to stop.

    The reason any of this has an effect on the engineers role has to do with uncertainty. Uncertainty about the public's perception about what you're doing. Is it ethical in all respects? Are you involved in quality work? Will the end product be safe? Is an end to tolls and penalties somewhere in sight?  And the big one about routing; Are you willing to write condemnation orders on property that maybe shouldn't be condemned?

    If this is something misguided and you get tarred by association, where and how do you draw the line?

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    William Bala P.E., S.E., M.ASCE
    Owner
    Hawkins TX
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  • 2.  RE: Toll Roads, When they should become public property

    Posted 06-28-2022 10:13 AM
    Toll roads developed by public authorities are public property so the title of this thread with regard to the original post may be misleading. When members of an RMA are confused by this aspect it is no wonder that the public might also be similarly confused.

    Traditional funding sources like motor fuel taxes have not seen a "cost of living" increase in thirty years and, as we've seen recently, are often the subject of political theater and their collection mechanics is misunderstood by local, state, and national elected officials along with the users. The growth in our surface transportation network is dominated by motor vehicle transportation and the reluctance of elected officials to increase taxes is driving the pursuit of "innovative" funding and financing for additions to that network. The regional mobility authority is an example of a non-traditional means for developing and funding transportation projects that a region believes are necessary now, but can't compete for the funds that state agencies must dedicate to areas with even greater need. The ties between land development and transportation development and the competition between communities to attract this development and increase their tax base so that they can provide more transportation expansion and attract more development is the snake eating its tail. So, some funding agencies feel encouraged to develop projects that are economic engines to generate excess funds that can roll over into other projects for the region.

    There is always a concern that the public does not hear or understand the message when planners and engineers develop their plans and projects. Public involvement should be no different for an RMA or a DOT. Some funding sources do require certain levels of public involvement like a public hearing, but even so that requirement is almost never at the level of engagement that will result in an informed public and an informed project. True public involvement is multi-faceted and ongoing throughout the process and is challenged at every step to present the information in a way that is accessible to all who might have negative or positive benefits. Public perception is difficult to address because it is often driven by misinformation and public information is difficult to distribute in a way that all can access in these days of shifting media sources. Project disinformation was distributed on social media platforms well ahead of the more recent and infamous election disinformation campaigns.

    Public infrastructure projects are never "paid off." We design public infrastructure with 20, 30, 50, or more years of life and the maintenance and rehabilitation costs over that life may eventually rival the front end costs of the construction. So, if you set a toll that expires at some date when the project is "paid off," those maintenance and rehab costs will have to come from funding sources that might otherwise fund other new construction.

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    Robert Appleton P.E., M.ASCE
    Associate Professor of Practice
    College Station TX
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  • 3.  RE: Toll Roads, When they should become public property

    Posted 06-29-2022 10:01 AM
    "Paid for" as opposed to "Paid off" simply refers to when the collection of tolls ceases. The premise of toll roads being publicly owned is not so confusing as their administration is confounding. The Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike eventually stopped collecting tolls and became a portion of I-30. Obviously planned as such. That was before regional mobility authorities. The question for the voters might be more along the lines should we be building roads we can't afford to maintain without perpetual tolls from so many agencies.

    My rationale for starting the thread was to pose a question for engineers who become involved in the planning and construction of these highways. Not all of the 14 Regional Mobility Authorities in Texas do things in quite the same way. Granted, there is a great deal of competition for funding. It's the policy decisions of this many independent agencies in that competitive environment that begs for oversight. A comprehensive annual audit by the state of each might reduce some of the confusion.

    What really concerns us as engineers is the issue of protecting public health and safety. If that becomes compromised, where do you turn? How do you take an independent agency like an RMA to task, or do you just walk away and hope for the best?


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    William Bala P.E., S.E., M.ASCE
    Owner
    Hawkins TX
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  • 4.  RE: Toll Roads, When they should become public property

    Posted 07-01-2022 10:05 AM
    Another issue with the delegation of infrastructure responsibilities to localities is that it makes each decision body less experienced, as they can only work on projects in their own areas. One of the reasons that infrastructure projects take so long and cost so much in this country is that it takes forever to come to an agreement with local stakeholders. This makes it difficult for any single body to accrue a body of knowledge and experience. Every project becomes a unique undertaking, so experience doesn't always transfer to the next one.

    There are problems with forever-fees, but build–operate–transfer is a model used in many countries. To the extent that road fees take the place of gas taxes in funding, I don't see a problem. To the extent that incentives are given to high-occupancy vehicles, fuel usage may be lowered. Whether to get rid of the tolls seems to me to be a political decision, not an engineering one.

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    Tsee Lee, A.M.ASCE
    General Services Administration
    New York, NY
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  • 5.  RE: Toll Roads, When they should become public property

    Posted 06-28-2022 12:39 PM

    I see toll roads as simplify a manifestation of US culture, in broad generality, being self-absorbed and/or not having a distrust for government. By being self-absorbed, I mean nobody wants to pay for anything that would go to the greater good of society. Toll roads and special tax investment zones, which we also have in Houston, are both work-arounds to overcome the constraints that have been levied on new tax revenue generation or caps placed on existing revenue generation. One of my observations when I was living in the Netherlands – brought on by a colleague who was complaining about the high taxation rate that he was subject to – was that everybody pays the same at the end of the day. It's just a different path to get there. The Netherlands (and many other European countries) are akin to being on the 'American Plan' (or all inclusive) while we in the US are on the ala carte plan (we pay separately for services). I don't see an ethical issue for engineers working on toll roads. It's the nature of the beast.



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    Mitch Winkler P.E., M.ASCE
    Houston, TX
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