Sunday, August 12, 2007

"A sin tax on driving in Texas."

TxDOT may soon only maintain roads

August 12, 2007

By Bill Hankins
The Paris News
Copyright 2007

COMMERCE — Texas Department of Transportation faces its most severe funding crisis ever, and according to officials who met Friday at the second Northeast Texas Mobility Transportation Forum in Commerce, things are not going to get better.

TxDOT leaders, including Michael W. Behrans, TxDOT executive director, and Amadeo Saenz Jr., assistant executive director of engineering operations, told the group of city and county leaders unless new sources of roadway funding are developed, the state soon will be in a maintenance program rather than a roadbuilding program.

“For more than 80 years, Texas has relied primarily on the motor fuel tax to fund transportation,” Behrans said. “So it is difficult to understand why the state can’t continue to pay for constructing and maintaining roads in the traditional way.”

Behrans went on to explain why.

He said since 1991, the fuel tax has been 20 cents per gallon.

“The misconception is an increase in gas prices equates to more money paid in taxes, but that is not so,” he said. “Gasoline at $3 per gallon or $5 per gallon still brings in only 20 cents at the state level and only $18.9 cents at the federal level.”

Behrans said the state only gives back to Texas a portion of that money paid on federal gasoline taxes, and the Texas Legislature has traditionally earmarked some of the state gasoline tax money for other projects, including education.

“That leaves us a dwindling portion of the taxes to operate,” he said. “With higher costs of products to build highways, such as cement and steel, we are spending most of the money on maintenance rather than rebuilding highways or building new ones.”

He said less and less is going into new highway construction and more and more into maintenance, “and that is just not the efficient way of doing it.”

Behrans pointed out another problem: More efficient cars.

“Cars are getting better mileage, and drivers are buying less gasoline, paying less in taxes and going to the gasoline pumps less often,” he said. “Our air is less polluted, but our roads have more potholes.”

Inflation has had a definite impact on TxDOT.

Construction costs have risen — on average about 6 percent a year during the past five years, diminishing the purchasing power of the limited dollars available for construction.

A stagnant motor fuel tax rate, billions of dollars in diversions, a growing population and an aging system are the makings for a statewide wake-up call, Behrans said.

Texas must look to new methods to invest in its transportation infrastructure, he said.

“Toll roads will be a part of the answer,” he said. “But toll roads will not bring in the amount of money needed to build a good highway system.”

Behrans pointed to the need for public and private funding.

He praised the development of the new mobility authorities springing up around the state.

Those organizations are moving ahead with almost $56 billion worth of highway projects, and officials of such organizations as the Sulphur River Regional Mobility Authority have several new means of financing highway projects.

Behrans also turned to two Texas lawmakers who spoke at the meeting, state Sen. Bob Deuell and state Rep. Mark Homer, with a challenge to get the Legislature working on new funding methods.

Legislators are studying the possibility of taxing drivers for miles driven instead of, or perhaps in addition to, gasoline taxes at the pump, but opponents are looking at that possibility as almost like a sin tax on driving in Texas.

Behrans said Texas has 80,000 miles of highways and 50,000 bridges, and more money is now being spent on maintaining infrastructure than in rebuilding roadways that need rebuilding.

Another option to be put before voters is an issue to allow Texas to issue bonds for highway construction and improvements. That would come before voters in November.

Still another piece of state legislation, HB 1857, provides more authority to regulate development around future transportation corridors. That is designed to cut costs of buying rights-of-way for future development.

© 2007 The Paris News:

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