Friday, May 04, 2007

"In the pursuit of ‘no new taxes,’ the legislators have created a shadow tax in tolling.”

Controversial corridor faces new hurdle

Texas Legislature considers transportation funding options as TxDOT privatizes projects


Community Impact Newspaper
(Round Rock, Pflugerville, Cedar park, Leander, Austin)
Copyright 2007

Trans-Texas Corridor is a small term that encompasses a large number of projects. It is not merely a single road but an amendment to the Texas Transportation Code that has introduced an unprecedented system for highway funding.

Now two bills, one currently in the House and one in the Senate, are questioning whether the TTC’s bold ideas are helping or hurting Texas drivers.

The Trans-Texas Corridor is not a road, or even a network of roads, but simply legislation. In 2003, Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 3588, responsible for the Trans-Texas Corridor, into law, providing for private funding of public roads, large-scale tolling and the eminent domain of land.

One of the TTC’s main proponents, and an author of the bill, is Rep. Mike Krusee of Williamson County. Krusee, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, said he wrote the bill broadly to give local government many tools to address congestion.

“The 20th-century model for transportation growth will not suffice for the 21st century,” Krusee said in his 2003 statement of purpose for the bill. “Motor fuel taxes are declining per mile traveled on the state’s highways, and as a result the construction of new highways cannot keep pace with demand.”

The verdict is still out on whether it is an inspired solution or the source of more problems.

In the past, highway construction was funded through a rise in the state gas tax, but the gas tax has not increased in 16 years, while the number of people on Texas roads has grown by over 5.5 million in that time.

“The National Highway Trust Fund is scheduled to be insolvent in 2009,” Krusee said. “The state has invited the private sector to be its partner because the state lacks the revenues to address new growth on its own. The state needs private sector funds because the legislature has refused to dedicate adequate public funds.”

The Texas Department of Transportation signed a $3.5 million planning agreement with Spanish engineering and construction firm Cintra-Zachry in 2005. Although this is only an agreement for planning, in exchange for Cintra-Zachry’s $6 billion investment in a four-lane, 316-mile road between Dallas and San Antonio and another $1.2 billion for rights to that road, Cintra-Zachry would reap the toll concession for the next 50 years, according to the document’s language.

In addition to the use of tolls to fund new roads, TTC also allows existing roads to be tolled. It is this use of pre-existing roads, built using gas tax, to suddenly raise toll revenue that has caused some to lash out, calling it a “double tax.”

Already TxDOT has proposed managed, tolled lanes along MoPac. At an April 12 meeting, TxDOT explained how the managed lanes would work similar to High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, but people would pay to use these faster, less crowded lanes based on the amount of traffic at the time. The tolls collected here would be aimed more at easing congestion rather than raising revenue. These managed lanes are also being considered along IH 35 and US 183, according to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2030 plan.

Bills fight the TTC

When the TTC passed the House and the Senate in 2003, it did so with a vote of 146 to 0 and 31 to 0, respectively. Four years later, bills limiting the powers of the TTC have passed both the House and Senate with votes of 137 to 2 and 30 to 0.

This new legislation, House Bills 1892 and 2772, and Senate Bill 1267, put a two-year moratorium to new toll roads, allows individual cities more control over how TTC affects them and gives more consideration to privatization.

Some attribute the political dynamics of the 78th Legislature in 2003 as the reason the TTC legislation was passed.

“If you remember, the hot topic was redistricting,” said David Stall, former city manager of Columbus, Texas and head of the transportation watchdog group Corridor Watch. We had legislators off in Oklahoma, and that pushed other legislation to move quickly and with not even a normal amount of review. It was a large bill, well over 300 pages, and it passed in a few hours with little debate.”

Even after passing, the bills must be signed by Gov. Perry, a supporter of the TTC. However, a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate could override his veto, and current support for the bills indicates this could be possible.

“I’m thankful that we finished SH 130, SH 45, SH 183A and the MoPac extension when we did because the moratoriums would have had a devastating impact on Williamson County,” said Krusee, one of the two who voted against HB 1892. “It is wrong for the Legislature to take away their only tool for desperately needed new capacity while refusing to generate any new revenue for roads.”

Other possibilities

Regardless of whether the reigns are put on the TTC, Texas is still left in a transportation bind. If money isn’t coming from tolls, then it must come from somewhere, so one place legislators are looking is the gas tax.

Krusee has filed a bill, House Bill 9962, to allow the gas tax to rise with the inflation rate, and in the Senate, another bill would similarly raise the gas tax by the need for transportation funds. Texas’ gas tax ranks in the middle for state gas taxes at 20 cents, with New York the highest at 33 cents and Alaska the lowest at 8 cents.

“It’s unrealistic to lock in a revenue in 1991 and not have it grow,” Stall said. “How many people could pay their rent today if their income got locked in 1991? In the pursuit of ‘no new taxes,’ the legislators have created a shadow tax in tolling.”

© 2007 Community Impact Newspaper:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE