"A Love Fest"
Conciliatory tone on funding options, but what to do if the public does not want to pay?
October 12, 2007
by Harvey Kronberg
Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said today that he and his fellow commissioners would work with Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Carona(R-Dallas) on indexing the gas tax as a way to deal with the state’s looming transportation funding gap.
Williamson made the remarks during a roundtable discussion this morning on transportation with Carona and House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock) at the annual meeting of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. And with Carona warmly accepting Williamson’s commitment to work on gas tax reform as a roads funding solution, it certainly appeared that the two men have decided to take a step back from their often fractious dialogue on public-private toll road partnerships.
Indeed, this morning’s talk on the future of transportation funding in Texas found the men sharing much more common ground than bones of contention, leading Carona at one point to describe the talk as "a love fest."
Moderator Bill Allaway of TTARA summed up their point of agreement, saying that all three men believed that the root of the current transportation funding dilemma stems from the state’s unwillingness to properly price the cost of transportation.
Williamson quantified the problem in a number of ways. He first said that the gas tax has not come close to keeping up with the costs of building and maintaining roads. If the motor fuels tax had been indexed to keep up with inflation as well as the growing demand for highways, it would be at 96 cents per gallon today. The combined state and federal gas taxes are currently at 38.4 cents per gallon.
He added that the taxes collected for the state’s transportation system currently pay for about a third of the system’s costs of construction and maintenance. "Not one strip of road in Texas pays for itself," he said. Meanwhile, if one looks at the cost per gallon that commuters are paying to use the public toll road systems in Dallas and Houston, it comes out to between $1.25 and $1.50 a gallon.
Williamson said the gap between funding sources and future needs has grown so great that the public is paralyzed by the choices it faces. "We’re not prepared to talk about 95 cents per gallon (in gas taxes) or going to all toll roads or a consumption driven model to pay for roads," he said.
He added that he does not favor a toll road at every street corner approach to growing the state’s road system. He said that the state needs to get a better sense as to which roads are most necessary and which roads could be considered conveniences.
The "roads of necessity," as Williamson called them, should remain either free or operated by public toll road authorities, leaving those "roads of convenience," defined by Williamson as highways where the driver would be willing to pay market price for the convenience, to the purview of private operators.
Carona offered an olive branch to Williamson, saying he respected TxDOT for offering public-private partnerships as a possible solution at a time that the Legislature was offering no solutions. However, Carona said that he continued to see public-private partnerships as the most expensive approach to building new roads in Texas.
The Senator said that Proposition 12, the November ballot proposal that would authorize $5 billion in general obligation bonds for transportation projects, was necessary to keep going the flow of new transportation projects. Bonds, though, are not a long-term solution to a funding gap, Carona said. He promised not to propose another round of bonds next legislative cycle.
Instead, Carona said he believed that reform of the gas tax was a better long-term fix. The Governor would presumably need to be on board should the Legislature move toward indexing the gas tax. Rick Perry spokesman Robert Black told QRthat Perry might be willing to support such a move. "The Governor has always said (an indexed gas tax) is an option the Legislature should look at," Black said. "The problem is that the Legislature has never wanted to look at it."
Krusee, though, pointed out that his amendment last session to index the gas tax went down in flames. The problem is that the public just doesn’t want to pay for roads, he said. They shot down reform of the gas tax as well as public-private toll partnerships. That leaves bonding as the only way to finance roads, but that method also has problems as it pushes the costs to future generations, he said.
The state must start looking at alternatives to the gas tax as the way to fund road construction and maintenance, Krusee said. He pointed to the voluntary pilot program in Oregon where motorists are charged per vehicle miles rather than gasoline usage. The growing use of alternative fuels and highly fuel-efficient cars will soon render the current model of paying per the gallon obsolete, he said.
Carona said that he agreed with the over the horizon ideas presented by his counterparts but that to convince lawmakers to change course on transportation should be done in baby steps – and on a biennial basis. He added that the Big Three – Perry, Dewhurst and Craddick– must push transportation funding in a more prominent manner. Big changes in public policy only happen when the state’s leadership support them, Carona said. "It’s important for them to make public statements on this," he said. "We need their help."
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