Friday, June 30, 2000

"Legislatures have been dipping into highway-related revenues to avoid tax increases elsewhere."

OPINION: Texas roads can’t be put off any longer

by William Murchison

The Lone Star Report
Volume 4, Issue 40
Copyright 2000

So we have government. What should it do?

The basics, many Texans would argue – educate, protect, enforce. Anything else? What about facilitating commerce and the movement of goods and people through provision of a first-rate highway system?

Yeah, yeah, sure; no one disagrees with that proposition. A couple of decades ago, I remember reading libertarian tracts that concerned abolition of state-owned highway systems and their replacement by private, toll-funded roads. You see how far the idea got. To 99.999999 percent of the populace, government’s duty to maintain roads is as unavoidable as the 5 p.m. rush.

So what’s Texas’ problem? If conservative Texans agree on the need to maintain a road system once routinely called the country’s best, what stops us now from doing so? Not constitutional scruples. Money is the problem. Money and shortness of memory concerning how things used to be and why they aren’t that way anymore.

As LSR ’s James A. Cooley noted last week, the $3 billion appropriated in fiscal 1999 for Texas road projects supplied only about one-third of the need. To reflect on these matters, government and business thinkers put their heads together at the recent Texas Transportation Summit (reported in this and the June 22 issues) in Irving. Absent some dynamic remedies, the transportational picture for Texas is not a pretty one. It depicts slowly deteriorating, rapidly clogging roads. It shows us – heaven help – Arkansas.

In recent years, prior to my older son’s graduation from Rhodes College, in Memphis, my wife and I made fairly regular trips to that lush and steamy city on the Mississippi. This was a prospect we relished only in part. Such a trip involves driving all the way across Arkansas, on, inevitably, Arkansas highways.

I don’t discourage such a journey; I don’t recommend it either as a source of pleasure. On crossing the border at Texarkana, you know you’re not in Texas any more. Road surfaces roughen. The long, long interstate highway (for which Arkansas is responsible inside state boundaries) is two-lane.

A piece down the road from Texarkana, the warning signs commence: Left Lane Closed Ahead; Right Lane Closed Ahead; Reduced Speed Ahead; Detour. Road crews may be seen – doing what? Whatever they do seems not to matter greatly; on your next trip, they are doing something else Doing it in what strikes Texans as an undermanned and desultory way.

On go the lane closures. West of Forrest City, the traffic suddenly stops dead – yes, on the interstate. It lurches forward, then stops again. Then forward, then…

Some fun. Just such a state as Arkansas, you note mentally, is likely to elect just such a governor as William Jefferson Clinton .

So we have government. What should it do? Among other things, build and maintain good roads – and be ready to pay for them, this being the fly in the ointment.

Whereas taxes on gasoline and vehicle sales would seem fruitful, and appropriate, sources of money for highways, Texas lawmakers have voted to funnel a big chunk of these so-called “user taxes” to other sources, such as public education. A third of the motor fuel tax goes to non-highway -related purposes. Of the $6.5 billion collected in sales taxes on vehicles, almost three fifths goes to general purposes.

This is not to disparage such purposes. Clearly schools – just for instance – need money. On the other hand, what is amiss with logic, not to mention honesty?

A gasoline tax that goes for general revenue is not unlike a church collection that goes to the YMCA. Legislators have been dipping into automobile- and highway-related revenues to avoid tax increases elsewhere. Such an approach is supposed to make the voters grateful? Not likely when the consequence is the deterioration of a once-superior highway system.

Texas rightly prides itself on small, cheap government. Per-capita tax collections around here are among the nation’s lowest. This isn’t bad, it’s good. But to short-pot basic government services isn’t good, it’s bad.

The irony here is that roads – as Gov. Jim Ferguson used to brag – “got the farmer out of the mud” and the state of Texas moving faster than most other places. “The auto,” writes T. R. Fehrenbach , “arrived before efficient public transportation – rails had always been limited and unprofitable in such a thinly populated expanse – and thus had far greater economic and social importance than in the more compact East.” Texas conditioned itself to spend “enormous sums” on roads. “[O]n this, rural and urban interests all agreed.” Thus, by the 1950s, “even the rural, farm-to-market roads in underpopulated areas were superior to most U. S. highways in the East.”

A good roads program for the 21st century will involve much more than just taxing gasoline. Witness the numerous, and sometimes complicated, schemes bruited at the transportation summit. Nevertheless, you might suppose the easiest way to begin would be just to let the motor fuel tax do what it was meant originally to do – build the great roads carrying the fast cars whose thirst the motor fuel was designed to slake. O

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