Thursday, December 30, 2004

"House Bill 3588 made tolls a key funding strategy"

Legislature driven to fix road funding

Advocates say tolls won't be enough. Far-reaching bill to be revisited.

December 30, 2004

Patrick Driscoll, Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2004

A massive transportation bill passed by the Texas Legislature last year has enlisted toll roads as the main weapon to fight growing traffic congestion, but officials say more legislation is needed to help unclog the state's roadways.

Elected leaders, bureaucrats and road advocates are looking to the 79th Legislative Session, which begins Jan. 11, to tweak and juice up House Bill 3588 - the historic omnibus transportation bill that made tollways a big business in Texas.

Up for consideration are ideas to increase the gasoline tax, free up more taxpayer money to build toll lanes, shuffle the budget to direct more funds to transportation, and allow state officials to spend more on rail facilities.

Expect clear-headed discussions and decisions but not a visit from the road fairy, especially for anything calling for new taxes, said Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation.

"We've got everybody's attention, that's for sure," Krusee said. "This is one of the best opportunities ever to educate the Legislature and the public in the realities of transportation funding."

But he added, "It's far too early to predict what the outcome's going to be."

The reality is that the 38-cent-a-gallon gas tax, in place for more than a decade, can't keep up with the demand for roads, officials say. Inflation marches on, cars are getting better gas mileage, population is exploding and people drive more than ever.

But political resolve wilts over the prospect of raising it another $1, as some say is needed.

"New sources of revenue are always controversial," Krusee said.

Before HB 3588 made tolls a key funding strategy, Texas could pay for only a third of its desired transportation projects.

With toll roads on the books to speed up construction - including new lanes for Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the North Side - metropolitan areas now can take care of 60 percent of transportation needs over the next 25 years.

"It still doesn't bridge the entire gap," said Vic Boyer, director of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition. "There's still a significant amount of funding that's needed."

The coalition, a public-private nonprofit group, and officials in other cities likely will ask the Legislature to increase the gas tax steadily to keep in step with inflation and to let voters raise sales or gas taxes at local levels to help pay for transportation projects.

Another proposal eyed by San Antonio advocates as well as state transportation commissioners is to shift highway user fees from the General Revenue Fund to the Texas Mobility Fund, although it would cut money from other programs.

But all three suggestions could be quashed by fears of new taxes, Krusee said. And the school finance reform issue trumps them all.

"School finance kind of throws everything up in the air," he said.

Facing a better chance is an effort to pour more gas taxes into toll roads to accelerate projects, Krusee said. Lawmakers could do that by removing, or at least raising, a cap of $800 million a year that the Texas Department of Transportation can spend on tollways.

The House Transportation Committee last summer recommended such a move, and the Texas Transportation Commission two weeks ago asked for a repeal of the cap. San Antonio officials support changing it.

"We're not toll happy, we're transportation-asset happy," commission Chairman Ric Williamson said.

"Somebody else has a good idea of how to relieve traffic? The door's open."

San Antonio officials, stung by a rash of major train accidents this year, also welcome proposals by the commission to eliminate state spending caps on rail lines and to create a fund to relocate tracks around cities.

The fund could be stretched by using it to leverage bonds, state officials say. About $100 million a year could generate an estimated $1 billion in bonds.

Relocating freight rail would make downtowns safer and open doors for commuter rail to run on old tracks, which is what San Antonio and Austin officials hope to do along Interstate 35.

"That's an important one, I think, for us," said County Judge Nelson Wolff, who will be chairman of the Mobility Coalition next year. "All this exclusivity of asphalt is just leading to an era of congestion."

Other matters up for debate include deciding when a conversion of a free road to a toll road occurs - whether it's during planning phases, construction or after it opens - and what approvals are needed.

Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, who has listened to an uproar in the capital over toll road plans and has voiced concerns himself, suspects legislators might even rescind the provisions that allow conversions.

"I can tell you, I think the conversion issue will be revisited for sure," he said.

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