Texas to incentivize driving for decorated veterans

SH 130 Mainlane toll plaza near CR 107.

SH 130 Mainlane toll plaza near CR 107.

Starting in 2013, Texas is giving disabled and decorated veterans free access to most of the state-run toll roads

 as a way to show appreciation for their service. Maybe there's some nice metaphor in there about vets who've lost some personal mobility due to injuries acquired on the job and the Texas DOT helping make up some of the loss for them, but as a policy this plan falls flat on its face.

The article doesn't discuss what this means for veterans who are unable to drive due to their injuries, for whom this proposal seems kind of like a slap in the face, but that's far from the worst thing happening here.

Toll roads usually exist to pay for transportation infrastructure and maintenance so by neglecting to collect this money they're necessarily choosing to spend money from elsewhere (maybe transportation-dedicated, maybe general fund) to make up the deficit. In other words, Texas has decided that out of all the possible ways you could spend one million dollars a year to benefit veterans, this is the best choice. Let me just say that I think it's perfectly acceptable (and actually admirable) to provide special services or discounts to our veterans, particularly those who have been permanently harmed during the course of their duty. But is this really the best we can do? On the scale of really horrible to really wonderful things to do for our veterans, is this even "better than nothing"?

It's established that tolls will reduce traffic volumes on a corridor. Some of this is because the trip isn't that important so they just don't take it, some of it is people taking alternate routes, some of it will be people carpooling or using transit instead, and if it's a variable toll some of it will be people traveling at non-peak hours in order to save some money. There are issues with the variable toll price in that you've got a group of people who are not subject to the market forces at work and therefore will not travel at optimal times, negatively impacting traffic overall, but after a cursory glance at TDOT tolls they don't appear to have different tolls at different times of day. It's a pretty small group of people anyway, so it wouldn't be a huge problem in this case, but could in other circumstances.

The real issue here is why is Texas incentivizing driving for this group at all? Or for any group for that matter? This is just an educated guess, but I doubt it's written into the TDOT mission statement that one of their goals is to increase the use of regional highways by single occupancy vehicles. If you're going to take a million dollars out of the state's budget to help out veterans, why not just give them a check every year and let them decide how to spend it? There's only an estimated 7,360 eligible vets in the area, so that works out to about $136 per person. I'd be pretty excited to receive a $136 check from the state, and I can tell you that I probably wouldn't spend it joyriding around the freeway in my car. Or if you wanted to make things more complicated you could probably get some good value in jobs training programs, housing aid for lower-income vets, medical care, etc. If you wanted to keep it transportation-based, why not give them a benefit that's actually good for their health like a free transit pass, a bike, or a good pair of walking shoes?

Giving people more reasons to sit in their car is completely against their interests, and it's all the worse that we're doing this for (or to) the members of our community that have sacrificed the most for us. Longer commutes are correlated with obesity  and more specifically it's been shown that sitting all the time is bad for your health. And lets not forget that tolls are far from the only cost associated with driving: encouraging more driving means encouraging more money spent on gas and car maintenance, among other things. That might be good for Texas oil interests, but it's not good for veterans or anyone else.