Thursday, May 10, 2007

"It appears that the Legislature is willing to leave town without owning up to the job."

Thanks for the Jams: Legislature ignoring our transportation needs

May 10, 2007

State lawmakers began the year with dire but legitimate warnings about transportation funding ringing in their ears.

Since then, it seems, they went deaf.

Keeping pace with highway needs requires tens of billions of dollars in new money, but it appears that the Legislature is willing to leave town without owning up to the job.

The only-too-obvious source of new cash is a boost in the motor-fuels tax, which has been at 20 cents a gallon since 1992. After close study, both the House and Senate transportation chairmen, including Dallas Sen. John Carona, have called for at least an indexed increase that would rise with inflation.

Not only have lawmakers ignored that solution, House members overwhelming voted this week to declare a three-month gas-tax holiday – a politically motivated giveback that's dumbfounded on two counts.

  • First, if lawmakers are willing to dip into the budget surplus, they can find more responsible uses than buying goodwill among constituents. Putting more money into college-tuition assistance comes to mind. So does more money for at-home senior care or beefing up Child Protective Services.
  • Second, suspending the state gas tax dismisses the national call for fuel conservation.

Another source of revenue for road building – private equity money – has been partially frozen out in a haphazardly written, loaded-up moratorium bill (HB 1892) sent to the governor. We suspect that most lawmakers know not what they did, otherwise the list of landmines wouldn't be so long. One biggie: Transportation planners say that if the bill survives a veto, southern Dallas County's proposed Loop 9 would likely be held up. Because the bill would limit private deals for Loop 9 to 40 years, they say, otherwise-interested builders likely wouldn't make enough money back.

The moratorium exempted other projects – notably the radioactive State Highway 121 tollway – but its impact there is also fraught with surprise consequences. Regardless, the North Texas Tollway Authority will be going forward with a belated 121 proposal to compete with one from the Spanish company Cintra.

We'll know the outcome in a few weeks, after analysis of details. If NTTA wins with a more lucrative offer, great. Then lawmakers would be left to ponder the public benefits of competition to build toll roads – a process that their moratorium bill would shut down.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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