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Most Major Roads In Cities Don’t Get Any Gas Tax

This entry is going to serve as background for a future entry about the gasoline tax, new proposed “miles driven tax”, and tolls. It will probably be of little interest in isolation, so you might want to wait for the commentary later.

This map (click for larger version) is from a map of central Austin from the 2025 CAMPO plan. Every road which is colored something other than black is classified as an arterial (major roadway). Note that the axis of Austin’s grid is off – north-south in these comments refer to the roads that go diagonally off to the northeast.

The following arterial roadways on the image are part of the state highway system, and thus, eligible for gasoline tax money from the state:

  • Mopac Expressway (north-south thick green line on left)
  • I-35 (north-south thick red line on right – leaves screen)
  • FM 2222 / Koenig Lane (east-west road at north end of image which starts as purple on the west end and switches to blue at Mopac)
  • FM 2244 (small segment in extreme lower left of image colored olive green)

The following arterial roadways on this image are not part of the state highway system and have typically not received any gas tax money, either state or federal, for construction or maintenance:

North-south roads, roughly from left to right:

  • Westlake Drive (pinkish road near Lake Austin on far left)
  • Redbud Trail (small segment of pink crossing Lake Austin)
  • Exposition Blvd (pink and purple road west of Mopac)
  • Burnet Road (blue road starting at 45th St and heading north – at US 183 it turns into FM 1325 which is part of the state system
  • Lamar Blvd (blue then purple then blue then olive green covering entire map segment)
  • Guadalupe St. (purple then blue then purple then joining Lamar Blvd north of 45th St)
  • Lavaca St. (forms one-way couplet with Guadalupe downtown)
  • Congress Ave. (brown street in downtown grid)
  • Colorado St., Brazos St. (two purple streets in downtown grid not otherwise mentioned)
  • Red River St. (purple street just west of I-35)
  • Chicon St. (I think) – pink north-south street on extreme lower right

East-West Streets, roughly from top to bottom

  • Justin Lane (I think) – purple/pink at very top, ending at Lamar
  • Hancock / North Loop – purple road starting at Mopac and heading east
  • 45th St. – purple road starting at Mopac, changing to blue between Lamar and Guadalupe, then back to purple
  • 35th / 38th St. – starts as purple west of Mopac, changes to blue east of Mopac and then pink
  • Dean Keeton / 26th St – starts as blue/purple then changes to green, crosses I-35 and turns blue.
  • Windsor / 24th St – starts as purple at Exposition, crosses Mopac and ends at Guadalupe
  • MLK / 19th St – starts as pink at Lamar, changes to purple and crosses I-35
  • Enfield / 15th St – starts as pink at Lake Austin, changes to purple at Exposition, crosses Mopac and turns into 15th St.
  • 12th St. – starts at Lamar as purple then changes to blue, ends at Capitol, restarts after Capitol as blue, crosses I-35 and heads northwest as purple.
  • 11th St. – starts as purple at Guadalupe, heads east to I-35, turns pink after I-35.
  • Downtown grid: 8th, 7th Sts
  • Lake Austin Blvd – from Enfield Road at lake, turns into 5th and 6th sts.
  • 5th and 6th sts from Mopac to I-35
  • Cesar Chavez / 1st St from Mopac to I-35 (just north of Town Lake)
  • Barton Springs Road (small segment of blue in extreme lower left)



Keep in mind that, by terms laid out in the Constitution of the State of Texas, none of the roadways in the much larger list can receive state gas tax money. And in practice, none of them really receive federal gas tax money either, since the practice at CAMPO (the local board that disburses federal gas tax money returned to the state under various programs)is to disburse pretty much all of the available roadway funds to state highway projects.
In other words, when you drive on Lamar Blvd in central Austin, you’re paying gasoline tax to the state, but the city (who has to pay to rebuild the roadway when necessary, as just occurred over the last 2 years) doesn’t see one penny of that money. When you see construction on 38th St, the city is paying those bills with your property and sales taxes, not with the gas tax you incur while driving.
(corrected MLK / FM 969 on 2/23 – FM 969 does not start until Airport Blvd, which is off the map)

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Austin Driving in Austin Republicans Hate Poor People Republicans Hate Public Transportation Republicans Hate The Environment Texas Republicans Hate Cities

Anti-toll people are communists

I find it hilarious that so many suburban conservatives are up in arms over the toll plan. These are the same people who attack all sorts of supposed creeping socialism and proclaim that the market should solve all of these problems – and yet when it comes to a problem that actually affects them, all of the sudden they go weak on the orthodoxy. Of particular note are their vehement attacks on mass transit – which, unlike roads, requires a direct user payment at time of service (no, folks, gas taxes don’t count – the analogue here is tolls).

The fact is that “free” roads (no, folks, gas taxes don’t pay anywhere near the full bills) share more with communism than with capitalism. The trick here is to remember how the two systems handle “scarcity” (demand exceeding supply).

If the demand for a good, let’s say, TVs, exceeds its supply, the “solution” in the Soviet Union was a combination of rationing and simple long lines. People in Soviet Russia might have had to pay very little for TVs, but they were quite often unavailable and when they were available, they had to wait a long time to get them. In other words, the way that supply and demand are balanced in a command economy like the one the Soviets had is by making people stand in very long lines.

In a capitalist economy, however, if the demand for a good outstrips its supply, the market solves this problem by raising the price of the good until supply matches demand (usually by demand dropping; sometimes by supply increasing as additional production becomes more profitable). The trick here is that the capitalist solution (higher prices) is unquestionably more efficient in the long-run since it allows people to make rational decisions based on cost. (Maybe they buy a cheaper kind of TV; maybe they use their old TVs longer; whatever).

Note that both of these equations hold even if 1/4 of the cost of producing TVs is borne by the government through taxes, even when they’re specific taxes on people who watch TV. This means that the double-taxation argument is not welcome here, in other words.

Now, apply this to road space, which is a “good” provided in this area for which demand drastically exceeds supply at certain times of day.

In Communist Texas, everybody pays for highways in one way or another. Some of the funding comes from the gas tax (which you pay even if you’re driving on a big city street like Braker Lane which doesn’t get any money from this tax – I’ll start indignantly calling this Triple Taxation someday). Some more funding comes from property and sales taxes (much more than people think). None of it comes from tolls.

How is the demand-supply imbalance handled in Communist Texas? By long lines (congestion).

How is it handled with the new toll plan? By requiring people to pay if they want to use facilities for which demand exceeds supply. While there are no initial plans to change the amount of the toll by the time of day, that could be done fairly easily (it’s already done on a couple of HOT facilities in other parts of the country). This also means that there’s at least a small economic benefit to carpooling (finally).

What this also means is that instead of letting people be stuck in line on existing “free” highways until we gather the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to double and triple-deck everything so we can temporarily handle the demand for free roadway space, it would be a lot more efficient (again, from the capitalist perspective) to price even existing roadway space. And don’t cry double-taxation to me as I fail to get a dime back on my property or sales taxes being used for roadway and highway construction and maintenance on the days I ride my bike or walk.

So it ought to be very clear by now that if you support the current “free” highway regime over the far more capitalist “toll” highway plan, you have more in common with Communists than you do with free-marketers. Cognitive dissonance is alive and well in modern suburbia.

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Austin Driving in Austin Republicans Hate Public Transportation Texas Republicans Hate Cities Transit in Austin

Libertarians and Public Highways

Yesterday, local pseudo-libertarian Jeff Ward was speaking out on his show against the recently passed toll road plan. I’m not going to talk about whether the plan is good or bad (In my role on the Mostly Ignored Transportation Advisory Commission, I voted for it as a lesser of two evils myself with some amendments to handle some things I didn’t like), but about something which is increasingly common these days – that being Libertarians Who Love Them Some Good Old Fashioned Government Pork As Long As It’s In The Form Of Suburban Highways. (LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSH for short).
And just a minute ago, two winger-leaning cow orkers came over to get an education on toll roads. They also fall into this category.

So, one would assume that libertarians would be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, gas taxes (and worse, property taxes) are a very blunt instrument. People pay who don’t even use the facilities that get the money (for instance, people who drive on major arterials in the city of Austin are usually not on roads that get any state gas tax money, which by state law can only go to state highways). The money isn’t even remotely related to the facility you’re on (drive on I-35 and you’re funding construction of Mopac North). And with our own dysfunctional funding scheme here in Austin, you pay (via property and sales taxes) for not only major arterials such as Lamar Blvd, but also for right-of-way for state highway expansions even if you don’t own a car.

So when I turned on the radio, I would logically have expected Jeff Ward, he of the “show me the business plan for transit” theory, to be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, the funding is more directly related to the use (you use, you pay; you don’t use, you don’t pay). Ths is Libertarian 101.

You can guess, however, from where this is going that he doesn’t believe that way.

No, Jeff, like most self-identified libertarians I’ve met, loves our Socialist Highway System. Because, you see, he uses it every day, so it must be an example of Good Big Government. And he never gets to talk to any of the people who use Capital Metro every day, so that’s obviously Bad Big Government.

Those LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers love to complain that transit is bad because it gets most of its money out of a tax that most of us pay which is not related to our use (zero, some, or lots) of the system. They like to point out how little of the cost of one trip on the system is paid for at the time of boarding by the rider. Well, guess what, LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers? The same damn thing is true for road funding, at a much larger scale. I pay property taxes and sales taxes to Austin, which uses them to build and maintain most of its major arterials with no contribution from the gas tax. I get no rebate on the days I don’t drive. When I do drive, I drive most of my trips on those roads that Austin pays for; so my gas taxes go mainly out to the ‘burbs, where a much higher percentage of their major infrastructure receives gas-tax funding.

You know, I don’t like these roads being built either way. But I know damn well that having them built and having the people who chose to live out in the hinterlands pay some of the costs of their destructive choices is far superior than having them built and having us all pay out of generic gas taxes and property taxes and sales taxes. At least this way, when Joe Suburbia goes looking for houses, he’ll have to think of the cost of his choice.
I guess that makes me a better libertarian than Jeff Ward.

And please don’t talk to me about any of the following winger talking points on either side:

  1. We paid for them already. (No, you didn’t. Mostly, people in the urban core paid the bills for you).
  2. Double-taxation is wrong. (I don’t care. From an efficiency perspective – i.e. moving the most people for the least cost, you absolutely must use some form of congestion pricing, even if it’s the blunt instrument of tolls which don’t change by the time of day).
  3. You’re paving the Springs (Yes, but the other alternative was building these same roads as free roads, which would have been even worse as an incentive for sprawl over the aquifer).

Addendum

This morning I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway (near Lamar). I boarded the 983 express bus, and paid a “toll” of $1.00 (actually 50c since I bought discount tickets a while back). I was “double-taxed” since I also pay for Capital Metro with my sales tax dollars. Oh, the humanity.

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Austin Driving in Austin

The Big Talk About Toll Roads – Part One

Yesterday’s enjoyable lunch with Dave Dobbs reminded me that I intended to write this short piece, entitled “Why You Should Support (At Least Most Of) The Toll Road Plan Even If You Hate Sprawl”.

So, there’s this big plan out there to build a bunch of toll roads. Well, not exactly. Realistically, the plan is to add toll lanes to a bunch of existing roads, and build a few new toll roads. The new toll lanes would be freeway-quality; some of the existing roads’ capacity would be shifted to free frontage roads. This provides ammunition for the (false, but compelling) claim that existing roads are being ‘converted’ to toll roads, which I’ll explore in detail perhaps in a later posting.

The assumption is that if you care about the center city, and you hate sprawl, that you should be against this plan. Well, I love the center city. I hate the suburbs. I think gas needs to be a lot more expensive. I ride my bike to work a couple days a week. And yet, I’m going to support this plan.

Most of this plan was already on the books in one way or another. For instance, the long-range CAMPO plan always had an upgrade planned for Loop 360 (usually “expressway 6”, meaning 6 lanes and probably some more grade separation; by CAMPO’s terminology “expressway” indicates some separation but still some traffic lights). That means that sooner or later, these roads would have been built, with a combination of woefully underfunded state gas tax dollars, CAMPO-controlled federal gas tax dollars, and a dollop of city, county, and even Capital Metro funding from property and sales taxes.

Read that again. Most of these roads would be built anyways. That’s the first assumption you need to buy into in order to support these toll roads, and some people simply don’t. That’s fine, but at least understand the reasoning before you go on.

Why would these roads be built anyways? 99% of the drivers in this area think we don’t build enough roads. Yes, they’re wrong. Yes, informed people disagree. But those drivers are 99% of the population. You’ve got a lot of work to do to change their minds. I say good luck to you sir.

So, we’re stuck between choosing a slow buildout of free freeways like the US 183 creeper northwest, or a quick buildout by some other means. Some people suggest simply raising the gas tax. While this would address the impact on non-drivers (I, personally, hate the fact that City of Austin general fund monies go to pay for roadways like US 183 which not only don’t provide pedestrian accomodation, but are actively hostile to later accomodation – future paper on this subject to come), it doesn’t address the city/suburb equity problem.

Consider this: if I drive 10 miles through the city on S 1st St., Lavaca, Guadalupe, and Lamar; and my vehicle gets 20 mpg, I pay about 18 cents in gas tax, about a dime of that to the state. If my friend drives 10 miles through Round Rock on FM 620, he pays 18 cents in gas tax, about a dime of that to the state.
However, the state gas tax money (and the overwhelming majority of the federal gas tax money) is dedicated to roadways like FM 620. In fact, the state gas tax money cannot, by law, be spent on city roads (even major arterials).

So what’s the big deal? Look at a bunch of streets sometime and see what roads have route symbols on them and what don’t. (You might be fooled by Loop 343 through town on some maps – that’s old data; the signs on the street are the only reliable judge). Anything with a “SH”, “FM”, “RM”, “Loop”, “US”, or “Interstate” on it is getting gas tax money. Anything without is not. In most cases, not even federal gas tax money (on average, one major non-state-highway project per year gets a dollop of federal gas tax money through CAMPO’s process).

So most of the big roads in the City of Austin don’t get any gas tax money. This means that they must be funded by property and sales taxes. For instance, if one was going north from the river and looking at major E-W routes, all downtown streets (including Cesar Chavez); all numbered streets; Anderson Lane; Steck; basically every road between the river and US 183 with the exception of FM2222 is paid for by the city. And the same is true for N-S routes – such as Burnet Rd (south of US 183), Lamar Blvd. (ditto), Guadalupe, Red River, etc.

On the other hand, towns like Round Rock and Cedar Park have a much higher proportion of their infrastructure as signed and marked state highway routes (or US, which is really state under the covers). Go drive around and check it out if you don’t believe me.

So the gas tax is inequitable to city drivers and encourages sprawl. Most of the gas tax money you pay while driving around Austin goes to the ‘burbs.
So building these roads by increasing the gas tax is a bit more optimal than what we do now, but not much.

Finally, there’s the choice of tolling the roads. This, at least, only hits the people who use the road. So the people who chose to live in areas which now must be served with expensive roadways pay for the trouble, at least. And the future option exists to use this toll money to improve other modes of transportation (again: the state gas tax, by law, cannot be used on anything but highways; tolls have no such restriction).

So what about the argument that these toll roads will encourage more sprawl? Well, it’s possible. There’s two basic subarguments here, that I’ll address quickly:

  1. That adding capacity, even toll capacity, encourages people to move further out. I do believe this to be the case – but it’s less of an effect than adding free capacity would have been. And as said above, I don’t believe that not adding the capacity at all is a realistic option given the feelings of 99% of drivers.
  2. That the interests holding the bonds will have an economic incentive to produce more development in these areas in order to ensure adequate economic return (i.e.: the guys loaning the money need to make sure the supply of drivers fills the tollbooths). I find this less believable, because I think that most of the projects in this plan are going in corridors where sufficient demand for improved travel already exists, as long as the tolls are relatively low. Ironically, a toll project which sailed through with far less opposition (SH 130) seems to me to be a much worse bet. I have no problem believing current drivers will pay tolls today to travel up and down Loop 360 at twice current speed, in other words; but I don’t believe SH 130 is going to fill its coffers anytime soon.

The final bit is to analyze the projects and see which ones make sense and which might not, although I’ve already said that I think that at least one project under construction (SH 130) is worse than any of these. The RMA doesn’t want us to think this way, because they’re relying on an economic package consisting of all of the roads put together (i.e. they think they need the dollars from the better ones to pay for the weaker ones, and they need the capacity from the weaker ones to feed the better ones). This argument, while I disagree with it, is more defensible than many would have you believe – it’s the same argument transit supporters use to support little-travelled late-night trips on major routes (am I going to commit to riding the bus if it’s not going to be there the one night I work late?).

But I’ll analyze them anyways, because that’s what I’m supposed to do. When I rate revenue, I’m assuming no new development of any kind (in other words, this is based on my subjective opinion of existing traffic demand).

Already underway:

  • US 183A – seems a poor candidate for revenue to me, but it was already approved.
  • SH 130 – very poor candidate for revenue, but it was already approved.
  • SH 45 N – good candidate for revenue, already approved.
  • Loop 1 N – good candidate for revenue, already approved.
  • SH 45 SE – marginal candidate for revenue, already approved. (Remind me to write an article about the 45 naming sometime – TXDOT is still keeping alive the Outer Loop through shenanigans like this).

New proposal:

  • “Y” in Oak Hill – SH 71 phase – very good candidate (neighborhood very opposed since they assumed they were getting free capacity, but this does NOT qualify as “converting a free road”)
  • US 183 in East Austin – very good candidate (airport traffic tends to seek predictable routes even at higher expense)
  • SH 71 Southeast Austin – very good candidate (same as above)
  • Loop 1 S (SH 71 to William Cannon) – dubious candidate (short segment, unclear how feasible tolling it wll be). Seems like a stupid idea to toll a small segment in the middle of a long free stretch.
  • SH 45 S from Loop 1 to 1626 – dubious candidate, and opposed by the City of Austin.
  • “Y” in Oak Hill – US 290 phase – same as 71 phase.
  • Loop 360 – Bee Caves (2244) to Walsh Tarlton – very good candidate.
  • Loop 360 – remaining segments (as franchise) – would be good candidates. I don’t understand the desire to have one part of this road operated by the RMA and the rest by a franchise – this seems stupid (would be better to do it all one or the other).

OK, back to work.