Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"State leaders can't fight the numbers."

Put brakes on filching from state highway fund


San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Texas is the nation's fastest growing state.

New figures from the Census Bureau show that Texas gained 2.7 million residents between 2000 and 2006, an increase of 12.7 percent. Nineteen Texas cities are among the 100 fastest growing communities in the country. And six Texas cities are among the 25 most populous, with San Antonio number seven.

All those new Texans — some of whom are born here, some who move here — place increasing pressure on municipal and state infrastructure. Nowhere is the strain of population growth more obvious than on Texas roads.

Sixty percent of Texas highway funding comes from state fuel taxes and motor vehicle license and registration fees. The biggest chunk comes from the gas tax. And while the population has been growing and inflation rising, the gas tax has been fixed at 20 cents per gallon since 1991.

A report from Texas Comptroller Susan Combs lays out the issue in dollars and cents. The Texas Department of Transportation estimated in 1997 that the state needed to spend $11 billion annually on highway, bridge and aviation projects between 1997 and 2006. Actual spending for the period was $3.1 billion annually, or a shortfall of almost $8 billion per year.

TxDOT said the state should spend $4.9 billion annually on maintenance alone. The annual shortfall in the maintenance budget has been $1.8 billion.

Rather than spending more money on road infrastructure, the Texas Legislature has been finding ways to do the opposite. One-quarter of the State Highway Fund is diverted to public education.

Despite a budget surplus of $14 billion for the biennium, Express-News Staff Writer Patrick Driscoll reports that lawmakers diverted another tenth of state highway dollars to such unrelated purposes as the arts and mineral rights litigation. And the Senate quietly beat back a hair-brained scheme from the House to suspend the gas tax for summer vacation.

The first step toward getting Texas back on the road to a growing future is to stop filching the highway fund. Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, each sponsored legislation that would have ended the diversion of highway dollars. Both measures died in committee.

But even that wouldn't fill the pothole in funding. The population and construction and maintenance costs are increasing. Texas needs a revenue source for roads that keeps pace with those increases.

State leaders can't fight the numbers. The unpopular choices are to raise more tax revenue for highways, charge people to drive on them or sell or lease them as moneymaking operations to private interests. Those choices will only become more unpalatable — and the transportation crisis more serious — the longer they wait to act.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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