Friday, October 19, 2007

"Privatizing and letting the private companies own our toll roads is not the answer."

Taxpayers face $5B in transportation debt with November's Proposition 12

October 19, 2007

The Longview News-Journal
Copyright 2007

The saga of Texas transportation funding turns a critical page Nov. 6, when voters decide whether to overlay $5 billion in debt on state highways.

On Wednesday, a local mobility board asked residents to support the bond package, which it says could mean more money for East Texas road projects. Proposition 12 is a constitutional amendment that would let the state borrow money for highway improvement projects.

Texas Senate Joint Resolution 64, which called for Proposition 12, passed by a unanimous vote in both the House and Senate.

"I think Prop 12 is a step in the right direction to provide the Texas Department of Transportation the funding it needs for infrastructure improvements," said state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, a longtime supporter of pay-as-you-go government. Proposition 12 is the largest of four bond proposals on the Nov. 6 ballot, which together would bring roughly $6.75 billion in new state debt.

In the past six years, more than $6 billion in bonds have been issued for state highways through two constitutional amendments that voters passed in 2001 and 2003.

Texas Transportation Commission officials say there is a $77 billion shortfall between available revenue and needed road work statewide. The state highway department is mostly funded through federal money and dedicated accounts, including the state's 20 cent -per-gallon tax on motor fuels — to which 15 cents of each gallon is deposited into the State Highway Fund and the remainder into the Available School Fund, according to the House Research Organization.

"We're running out of money," said Jeff Austin III, chairman of the Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority. "We can't keep waiting on Washington. We can't keep waiting on Austin."

RMA Legal Counsel Brian Cassidy added, "This was a dismal session for legislative funding. At a time when the state's maintenance needs are increasing, the state's funding is diminishing."

As an example, the RMA chairman suggested Henderson's transportation requests, which include rail extension, widening of Texas 64 and a three-mile expansion of Loop 571. Money from Proposition 12 could join with a city or county funding match to pay for any or all of those projects, Austin said.

Eltife continued his call for increasing the gas tax, something he's suggested since taking office in 2006. The 20 cent-per-gallon rate has not increased in 16 years, but raising that rate would mean less borrowing for highway projects and less privatization or tolling of state roads, he said.

"Privatizing and letting the private companies own our toll roads is not the answer," Eltife said Thursday. "Everybody is Austin is yelling that we don't have funds for TxDOT, but no one is saying we need to raise the gas tax."

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