Texas caters to private toll road operators at the expense of the public

Texas recently approved a speed limit of 85 miles per hour for a new 41-mile segment of a privately operated toll road, and is getting a big payout in return for the favor. That payment amounts to a cool $100 million dollars, $33 million more than they'd have gotten for setting a speed limit of 80 mph.

There's a lot not to like about this deal, and people are rightly questioning how this is going to affect safety on this stretch of freeway, part of State Highway 130. Specifically, the Wall Street Journal article refers to a 2009 report in the American Journal of Public Health, which "found that higher speed limits adopted by states in the wake of the 1995 repeal of federal speed-limit controls had led to a 3.2% increase in road fatalities, or an estimated 12,500 more deaths from 1995 to 2005." As one would expect, increased speeds lead to more severe injuries, and it's not unreasonable to imagine it might also lead to an increased number of accidents in absolute terms due to the added challenge of driving at higher speeds--especially in adverse conditions like inclement weather or in response to erratic drivers.

The safety issues associated with this speed are undoubtedly the most consequential and immediate problem with this change. But there's another problem here that is really troubling, and that's the reduction of the speed limit of an adjacent, parallel freeway. This parallel freeway, of course, does not have a toll; so, as long as congestion isn't too awful or people don't feel they can afford the toll road they'll go with the free option. That could be a problem for the private toll road operators, so the very same year (coincidentally I'm sure) we see a reduction of the speed limit for their competition, making the free road an even less attractive option.

This is where I really begin to question the commitment of the Texas Transportation Commission--and perhaps the Texas government more broadly--to the public good. Government builds roads to facilitate movement of people and goods which is obviously vital to a society and to an economy. To me and most other people there are endless examples of how government does a poor job of allocating these transportation resources effectively, but that's really a value judgment based on your feelings regarding choice, pollution, personal freedom, economics, sustainability, safety, and so on. Putting that aside, once the infrastructure investment has been made we should be using it rationally and efficiently, and that is absolutely not happening here.

In effect, the Texas government is stacking the deck in favor of these private operators at the expense of the rest of the motoring public. When we look at a toll road competing with a free road we can expect less traffic on the former, so it already wins on congestion, and even before the speed reduction it wins on speed. But just for the sake of throwing a little extra money into the coffers of the guys running the new freeway (and you can bet it's not being distributed among too many people), Texas is willing to sacrifice the safety and money of its citizens and squander the investment already made in the previous road by forcing it to be used sub-optimally. Texas actually gets a cut of the tolls as well, not just the $100 million, but if it's really all about more money for the state why not just put a small toll on the old road and leave the speed as it was before? At least then people aren't forced to make the disturbing choice of either a) congestion and/or low speeds, but free, or b) open roads with increased cost and an increased chance of death. For such a free-market state, you'd think they'd want to go with the more "everyone pays their own fair share" method of raising funds rather than this backdoor money-grab.

Most importantly, private competition should never come at the expense of the level of service offered by the government. 

If we allowed multiple utility companies in a given region would the private competitor be allowed to pay off the government to limit the number of outlets at customers' homes? Do we start limiting the amount of medical care Medicare patients receive just because they've reached some arbitrary cap, and then force them to take their chances on the private market? (Oh, wait...) 

I can't say for sure whether privately administered roads is something that should even exist or not, but when private companies get into the business of competing with basic government services there need to be serious safeguards put in place. This clearly hasn't happened in the case of Texas transportation, and it sets a very serious precedent. 

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.