In response to widespread criticism, the North Texas Toll Authority (NTTA) is sending out propaganda to its customers in a desperate attempt to maintain credibility and justify expansion. Although the university study NTTA paid for allegedly substantiates their claims, its premise is flawed for two simple reasons—it attributes the general benefits of “mobility” exclusively to toll roads and doesn’t consider the opportunity cost of government spending.
The NTTA says that tolling “builds communities” because the study showed that the areas near where toll roads were built are generally booming. But the toll roads didn’t create the boom—they followed it. In other words, they have it backwards. The free market boom came first and necessitated the need for larger roadways.
They further claim that toll roads have attracted economic development and enhanced the “quality of life” of area residents. That’s partially true; some studies show that generally aiding mobility by lowering commute times attracts businesses and their employees. But that’s true for any mobility project that lowers commute times, not just toll roads. In other words, taxpayer funded “free” roads have the same mobility benefits—they are not unique to new toll roads.
The study conducted on behalf of the NTTA also failed to quantify, let alone consider, the opportunity cost of government spending. This flaw is not unique—it’s the fundamental problem with every study claiming that “government infrastructure spending” fuels economic growth and job creation.
The study implies that the billions of dollars spent on toll roads are a net economic benefit to the economy. It then quantifies the numbers of jobs those projects “created,” both in their construction phases and, for the selfish convenience of the NTTA, at the bureaucracy that oversees them.
The studies fail to mention that public funds are taken away from the private sector, meaning, the financing of public projects depresses other sectors of the economy. The resources spent on NTTA projects not only came from somewhere else, but may have also been more productively utilized on alternative projects. Either way, all public works projects are effectively a zero-sum game, not a net economic stimulus.
To be clear, traditional toll roads that levy “user fees” aren’t necessarily bad policy, where the cost to build the road is repaid by the commuters who use them. But most of Texas’ toll roads, including the NTTA’s, are anything but traditional.
They’ve levy “excess tolls” that function as non-transparent toll taxes to finance unrelated projects such as rail and bike trails. The legislature has created a crony toll road culture by forcing taxpayers to cover the losses of private construction and management corporations with existing highway revenue.
It’s no surprise that the NTTA paid for a study to substantiate the alleged benefits of their own existence. It is offensive, however, that attempts to rein them in responsibly are likely to be blocked by the taxpayer-funded lobbyists and the politicians who enable them.
Collin County House members have introduced “Toll Free Texas,” a ten-item legislative package, which works to reform the above policies. Texans should take notice whether or not any of the filed legislation gets a vote on the House floor, let alone a hearing in the Straus-appointed House Transportation Committee.