Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sen. Carona: "We've got to stop the diversion of gas tax funds for other uses. And I think we'll have strong support for that."

Carona calls for change in bridge, road funding

August 7, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

IRVING – Texas' methods of financing its roads and bridges are "irresponsible" and must change, the chairman of the state Senate transportation committee said Tuesday.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said he will call for an amendment to the Texas Constitution during the next session of the Legislature that will end lawmakers' practice, now routine, of diverting gas tax revenues to pay for expenses only tangentially related to construction and maintenance of roads and bridges.

"That's going to be probably the most important single issue in this next session, said Mr. Carona. "We've got to stop the diversion of gas tax funds for other uses. And I think we'll have strong support for that."

A previous amendment already restricts the use of those funds – which last year brought in $2.99 billion – for transportation-related expenses. But for years, the Legislature has steadily expanded the definition of what can be considered related to transportation.

Last week, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said nearly all of the annual budget for the Department of Public Safety, for example, is now funded from the motor fuels tax. "Just because it's legal to do something, doesn't mean it is what the Legislature ought to do," said Mr. Williamson, who conceded he also supported using the funds for non-construction purposes while he was a member of the Texas House of Representatives.

But on Tuesday, Mr. Carona labeled the practice both irresponsible and potentially tragic, especially given the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis last week.

"A lot of our infrastructure was built after World War II and is 50, 60 years old," Mr. Carona said. "Our bridges in Texas are sufficient, but that should not be taken to mean they are in good condition. Within a few short years, we could be putting our own citizens in danger."

Mr. Carona spoke following a hearing of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security, held in Irving as the annual Transportation Summit was preparing to get underway. Hundreds of transportation officials and business interests have registered for the conference, which runs through Friday and will include keynote speeches from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others.

Mr. Carona said in an interview that nearly $1 billion in gas tax revenue was diverted as part of the state's most recent budget. That money could have been leveraged with bond debt to pay for nearly $10 billion in road construction or maintenance, he said.

To amend the state constitution, a resolution must pass by a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. It must then be approved by a simple majority of Texas voters. Unlike other legislation, the governor has no ability to veto constitutional amendments.

The bridge collapse in Minnesota, Mr. Carona said, may prove to be an unfortunate impetus for lawmakers to address inadequate funding of roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure.

"It's sad to think that this kind of tragedy may be what is needed, but yes, I think legislators in Austin and in Washington will begin to focus" on transportation needs, he said.


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