Friday, August 10, 2007

"The rush to toll roads ... is a stop-gap solution brought on by the federal and state officials' reluctance to raise the gas tax."

Hutchison: Stay off road to higher gas tax

Irving: Lawmakers debate ways to pay for transportation needs

August 10, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Democratic calls for raising the federal gas tax to pay for national bridge repairs are wrongheaded, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said Thursday at a transportation forum in Irving.

"We cannot adopt every bridge in America," said Ms. Hutchison, R-Texas. "We have to be very, very careful that the federal government not become the genesis [of the funding] for all of the nation's bridges and for all of its highways."

Transportation officials in Austin and Washington have warned that the gas tax revenues supporting the Federal Highway Trust Fund will have a $4 billion deficit by 2009 unless new sources of revenue are found.

"My solutions do not include raising the gas tax," Ms. Hutchison said.

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, also said Thursday it would be a mistake to raise the gas tax to fix the nation's bridges or to meet other transportation needs. He said the federal government instead should reprioritize how it spends current revenue.

"For instance, every bridge in the nation is inspected every two years," he said. "Maybe we should take a look at that, and focus more of our money on inspecting the most critical bridges, or those that are in the most critical need of attention."

But Democratic members of the Texas delegation said Thursday that the firm anti-tax positions of the president and the Republican minority in Congress were too rigid.

"Everyone wants to act like taxes is a bad word, but tax increases have been what we have used to fund everything [the federal government does]," said U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, who also was at the forum in Irving. "At some point, we're going to have to own up to the fact that we are going to have to fund our transportation infrastructure."

The need for money to address deteriorating roads and bridges is not going away in Texas, where population growth and more over-the-road shipping will require more spending on roads, bridges and ports.

Ms. Hutchison said the best solution for Texas would be for Congress to send all of the gas tax money Texans pay back to the state, either in money for federal projects or in grants to the state Transportation Department for other roads.

Currently, the state gets about 91 percent of its gas tax money back – a holdover from the days when states including Texas were required to pay far more than their share to help more sparsely populated states in the West build national highways.

"The federal highway system is built out; we've already done that," Ms. Hutchison said. "There is no longer any reason for Texas to be helping to build highways and bridges in Montana or Wyoming."

She said that as a result of too few dollars flowing back to Texas, governments here are "forced to build toll roads everywhere in the state" to compensate.

Ms. Hutchison said tolling should be pursued but with caution. She criticized Gov. Rick Perry's plan for an Interstate 35 corridor of the Trans-Texas Corridor as an example of government pushing too hard on toll roads, despite opposition from property owners.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said the rush to toll roads throughout North Texas is a stop-gap solution brought on by the federal and state officials' reluctance to raise the gas tax.

"Nobody likes tolls," Judge Whitley said. "And eventually, there is going to be more pressure from citizens for other solutions. We've made it clear that we think Washington should raise the gas tax."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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