Monday, July 09, 2007

A 1.6 $Billion Diversion

Highway shortfall is worsening


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

State lawmakers did plenty of bellyaching about toll roads in the spring legislative session, yet curiously were bent on hamstringing transportation funding more than ever.

House members torched an effort to index the gas tax to inflation. The tax has been frozen since 1991 and is now losing ground to construction costs in annual double digits.

They also eagerly offered motorists a summer gas-tax holiday, which would have cost the state up to $700 million, though Senate members quietly let that flash of generosity die.

Then, after the session, news trickled out that lawmakers filched another $243 million from the State Highway Fund to plug budget holes, despite bold talk about stemming such bleeding of the fund and a $14 billion state surplus to play with.

In all, a tenth of the highway fund, $1.6 billion, will be diverted from building and maintaining roads over the next two fiscal years, up 15 percent from this biennium. That doesn't include a fourth of the gas-tax funds that go to schools.

Toll-road critics say the diverted money is just one way state leaders have created a self-fulfilling funding crisis, which is hyped to justify tolling.

San Antonio's share of the $1.6 billion might have been $170 million, more than enough to widen several miles of U.S. 281 or add direct ramps to Loop 1604. But Texas Department of Transportation officials want to toll most new lanes because, they say, money is short.

"They've simply abdicated their responsibility to fixing our highway system and now they're coming into communities and saying, 'Well, we gotta toll it,'" said Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson.

Meanwhile, facing widespread voter suspicions that toll plans are a gimmick to squeeze profits from captive motorists, most legislators last session hopped on board to pass a bill that freezes leasing of tollways for two years — which, it turns out, doesn't affect Trans-Texas Corridor projects along Interstate 35 or forbid any private investments.

Hobbling the 20-cent a gallon gas tax and draining more money from the highway fund, while at the same time clumsily trying to slow down private-sector toll projects, may sound like lip service to average Joes.

But lawmakers in the thick of a labyrinth of transportation bills last session put it this way:

"The Legislature as a whole is just not a very sophisticated animal," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, agreed.

"There's still a severe lack of understanding as to how critical the transportation shortfall in Texas has become," he said.

Even Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, a hero of the toll moratorium bill, joined the House stampede to thwart indexing the gas tax to consumer inflation. The vote was 122-19 to stifle the measure, which Krusee had tried to tack on a bill.

Kolkhorst couldn't be reached for comment.

Nine of the 10 House members from Bexar County voted to kill the indexing proposal.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, added a statement to the House journal to say that there should be serious debate on the issue rather than an off-the-cuff decision.

There needs to be more than a debate, said Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio. Without solid support from leaders, starting with Gov. Rick Perry, voting for a tax bill is like putting your neck on a chopping block.

When such a bill fails — and Perry over the years has threatened to veto attempts to raise the gas tax — there's nothing to show for it. Those who voted yes would be caught with no projects to brag about, just a record of supporting higher taxes.

"Yes, it's used against you politically," Puente said.

So, like junking an old car with a blown engine, voting against a tax bill that's going nowhere makes sense, he said.

On the other hand, putting a stop to raids on the highway fund also makes sense, an idea Perry does support, Puente said. He filed House Bill 2578 to let voters decide, and Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, filed an identical bill.

But both bills were bottled up in budget committees, neither getting a hearing.

The latest argument for business as usual refers to the Texas Constitution, which says highway funds can be used to police roadways. This is key because 80 percent of the money being diverted from construction and maintenance goes to the Department of Public Safety.

"In fact, this funding source is indeed dedicated to both TxDOT and DPS," House Speaker Tom Craddick said in a letter last month to Larson.

Such reasoning is cloudy, others say, because not everything DPS does is related to policing highways. Besides, that's still less money for roads.

"The governor does consider it to be a diversion," spokesman Robert Black said. "The diversion compounds the problems we're having in building transportation infrastructure."

And then there's niggling questions over where the other 20 percent of diverted funds go, such as social, health and educational programs and — among favorites used to spice up the fight — arts and historical commissions and even tourism.

In short, a long debate is needed to iron out differing views on what to do, said House Appropriations Chairman Warren Chisum, R-Pampa. And that should start way before the next session in 2009.

"We're all aware of the fact that we have to do something about highways," he said.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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