Monday, October 01, 2007

"Prop 12 would allow TxDOT to use general state revenue to pay back money borrowed for roads."

Prop-ping up Texas road spending

Proposition 12 would allow agency for the first time to borrow against general state revenue.

October 01, 2007

By Ben Wear
Astin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

So, you've no doubt decided already how you're going to vote on Prop. 12.

Me, neither.

In fact, until I started working on this column, I couldn't have told you that there are 16 amendments to our ever-ballooning Texas Constitution awaiting you on the Nov. 6 ballot, including one involving county inspectors "of hides and animals." Or that Proposition 12 would allow the Texas Department of Transportation for the first time to use general state revenue — sales taxes, oil taxes, etc. — to pay back money borrowed for roads. Up to $5 billion of borrowed money.

Actually, it would amend the constitution to make that possible. To really make it happen, the Legislature would have to pass what is called "enabling legislation." There was a bill to do that in the session this spring, one meant to accompany Prop. 12, but it perished.

If Prop. 12 passes, lawmakers would have to come back in 2009 and fill in the dots.

Those dots are pretty important. Could the bond money be spent on toll roads, or only on free roads? Both? Could the agency borrow it all at once, or over several years? Could it be spent only on new highway lanes? What about passenger rail, or Gov. Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor? Could it be used for those?

Then there's the question of where this $5 billion might be spent. Mostly in congestion-plagued metro areas, or evenly spread around state House and state Senate districts?

Historically, the Legislature, unlike Congress, has pretty much avoided specifying in law where Texas spends its transportation money. What political influence there is on that, and there is some, is more of the unofficial, stern-phone-call kind. But given how politically active the Transportation Department has been lately — Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson seemed like a 182nd legislator last session — and the distrust some legislators have toward the agency, there's no telling whether that hands-off policy will continue.

The money could come in handy.

The department had been in a flush period, thanks mostly to earlier amendments and legislation that allowed it to borrow about $7 billion and pay it back with gas taxes and fees. There was also a brief spike in allocations from Uncle Sam from the federal gas tax. And there were deals in the works with private companies to build toll roads. Road builders were walking around with perma-grins.

Circumstance and the Legislature have pretty much wiped off those grins. The federal money is drying up, most of that borrowing stash is committed and those private toll roads have fallen into disfavor. The Transportation Department, going into worst-case-scenario mode, said last week that after this year there'll be no more money for new roads.

An arguable point, certainly, one certain to be argued over the next couple of years. Prop. 12, if nothing else, might provide some money to tide us over until that spat is resolved.

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