Saturday, January 22, 2005

Ric Williamson: "We damn sure aren't going to sit on it."

State may boost budget for roads by $4.6 billion

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

The Texas Department of Transportation would see a 43 percent increase in the state's next two-year budget cycle, according to the Legislative Budget Board's 2006-07 spending plan.

According to that proposed budget, subject to tinkering before the Legislature passes a final appropriations bill this spring and the governor signs it, the Transportation Department would spend $15.1 billion in the two years starting Oct. 1. According to the budget for the current biennium, the agency was expected to spend $10.5 billion.

That two-year jump of $4.6 billion represents about a quarter of the $16 billion spending increase anticipated by the budget board's 2006-07 spending plan, this from a department with less than 10 percent of the overall state budget.

The picture is more complicated than those numbers would make it appear, transportation officials say. They point out that actual spending in 2004-05, thanks primarily to an acceleration of how the state collects federal transportation grants, will be $12.2 billion rather than the anticipated $10.5 billion.

Using that apples-to-pomegranates comparison, the increase would be only 24 percent. But that's still well above the 13.5 percent spending increase anticipated for the state overall in 2006-07. And it comes when the Legislature is expected to be scratching for ways to put more money into social services, public schools and salary increases for state workers.

State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said comparing the transportation budget's growth to that of general government likewise means setting disparate fruit side-by-side. The transportation budget is overwhelmingly supported by gasoline taxes, federal and state, with tax rates that haven't changed in more than a decade, and by methods of borrowing money created in 2003 that did not require raising taxes.

Anticipated spending for the Texas Mobility Fund in 2006-07, a new stash of cash that will be borrowed on the bond markets and paid back by motor vehicle fees -- along with money to be borrowed against future gasoline tax revenue -- represent about $1.9 billion of that new money. And federal grants would go up about $2.4 billion from the predicted 2004-05 amount.

"It's not as if we're taking it out of the education pie," Krusee said. "I would not want it to be seen as state policymakers valuing one area more than another."

The possibility exists that the current state of transportation plenty could ebb in coming years. That change in how the U.S. government sends money back to the state -- paying for the first 80 percent of projects rather than 80 percent of each individual segment -- will create only a temporary bump in that money stream. After that, the annual increase in federal transportation grants will return to a more measured pace. And the Texas Mobility Fund, at least for now, is expected to generate only $3 billion, money that could be exhausted by 2009 or so. But for now, road building will see an undeniable boom in Texas .

According to figures from the Transportation Department, about half of its budget in 2003 and 2004, or about $2.6 billion a year, went to planning, right-of-way purchases and construction of new or expanded roads. That will grow to $3.6 billion this year and then to $4.5 billion next year. And that doesn't count money borrowed on the private market that would be paid back by toll road revenue, such as the $2.2 billion in bonds sold for the three roads in the Central Texas Turnpike Project or the $6 billion that Spanish toll road operator Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructures de Transportes S.A. says it will spend on the Trans -Texas Corridor 's Interstate 35 alternative road.

Taking that money into account, as well as the department's budget spike and any road investments by toll road agencies in Dallas and Houston or regional mobility authorities, Texas could see an extra $20 billion of highway and railroad construction in the next five to 10 years.

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, a former member of the Legislature, said he hopes education and social services can find the needed money. He even said the transportation community would be open to shouldering some of that fiscal burden. But he said it's wrong to spin the transportation budget as any sort of negative.

"My perspective on this is that TxDOT doesn't have a lot of money, the state of Texas is going to get a lot of roads," Williamson said. "Because we damn sure aren't going to sit on it."; 445-3698

Copyright (c) 2005 Austin American-Statesman

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