Monday, April 30, 2007

State Auditor: 'Funding gap' TxDOT uses to push private toll roads lacks validity.

Audit challenges $86 billion transportation funding gap

Report says that more than $45 billion of the estimate is either in error or undocumented.

April 30, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The State Auditor's Office this morning released a report challenging the validity of almost half of a purported $86 billion shortfall in Texas transportation funding over the next generation, and cautioning that the gap estimate "may not be reliable for making policy or funding decisions."

That $86 billion figure has been cited repeatedly by Texas Department of Transportation officials and some legislators as a major reason for the state's increasing need for new toll roads. The number is a compilation of estimates from local transportation planning agencies around the state that were produced at the behest of the Transportation Department.

The report said those estimates include mathematical errors and that another $36.9 billion needed for projects in metropolitan and urban regions was "undocumented" and that $8.6 billion of the overall total should not have been included because of mathematical errors and other flaws in the estimates.

"The accuracy of the estimated costs for metropolitan and urban regions cannot be determined because of the lack of supporting documentation," the 23-page report says.

Mike Behrens, the Transportation Department's executive director, released a statement this morning saying that even if the shortfall is smaller, the state still has a substantial and growing problem in paying for new roads.

Behrens called the audit report "further documentation of a multi-billion dollar funding gap between the transportation system our state deserves and the one we can afford with current resources. No matter what number you choose, Texas has a big problem: more people, in more cars, driving more miles on an already congested highway system.

"The State Auditor's Office has provided some good suggestions for refining the methodology to draw a clearer picture of the state's mobility needs and we are incorporating their recommendations into our future assessments."

The Austin area's contribution to that $86 billion figure is about $10 billion. Local officials associated with that estimate have said in the past that it is not an actual list of unfunded projects, but rather an estimate based on formulas of what it would take to eliminate congestion on all highways at all times, including rush hour.

The report follows another critical state auditor report, released Feb. 23, that said the Transportation Department had downplayed the potential costs of the Trans-Texas Corridor and potentially inflated expected gains for the project. The earlier audit became grist for legislators this session looking to roll back powers granted to the Transportation Department in earlier session.

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