Thursday, October 11, 2007

"State lawmakers don't seem to have a clue"

Senator urging funding for roads


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

State lawmakers don't seem to have a clue when it comes to gauging public tolerance for higher gasoline taxes or hearing demands to scale back toll-road plans, a ranking Texas Senate member said Thursday.

"We need leadership on these issues," said John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security. "I'm very frustrated from the governor of Texas on down."

He made the remarks to the Express-News Editorial Board while stumping for Proposition 12 on the November ballot, which would allow $5 billion in bonds backed by general revenue to be spent on roadways, although he concedes that's just a quick fix.

Texas Department of Transportation officials said two weeks ago they face a funding meltdown because federal and state lawmakers refused for more than a decade to raise gas taxes and state legislators this year began curbing the agency's ability to privatize tollways.

TxDOT will slash $1.8 billion in road construction over the next three years, including at least $57 million to widen several San Antonio highways.

Carona didn't dispute the crisis, but said TxDOT should pull back some on using toll roads and privatization — the most hated and costly solutions — to fill the funding hole.

"I'm not opposed to all the toll roads," he said. "I just think they need to be part of the mix, not all of the solution."

But that means other options are needed, he said. Between now and the 2009 legislative session, the senator will rally support for three initiatives:

Raising the state's 20-cent-a-gallon gas tax by a nickel or a dime.

Indexing the gas tax to construction costs but capping increases to 3 percent a year.

Asking voters to consider a constitutional amendment to ban diversions of highway funds for other uses — including a fourth of the gas-tax pie going to schools, but only if all of that funding can be replaced from other sources.

Carona believes he can push some version of all three measures through the Senate.

"It'll depend wholly on what's going on in the House," he said. "The time to go after this is right now, while there's heightened legislative awareness."

House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, said he'll stick with Carona all the way, but there should be a backup plan because similar bills have failed over the years.

"The backup plan has got to be bringing private investment," he said. "The Legislature pretty emphatically said no to indexing, to increasing the rate."

Gov. Rick Perry, a staunch advocate for privatization and tolling, has long opposed proposals to increase the gas tax but would be open to allowing indexing, spokeswoman Allison Castle said. He also wants to stop gas-tax diversions.

"The governor believes toll roads are the fairest form of taxation, you only pay if you use them, but he's willing to consider a number of options, including indexing the gas tax," she said.

Toll critic Terri Hall of San Antonio Toll Party said she can't support a higher gas tax until TxDOT's finances are probed and the agency chucks a policy to toll new highway lanes whenever feasible.

"However, we appreciate a lawmaker courageously stepping forward to start the discussion of real solutions other than tolls," she said.

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