Friday, January 18, 2008

During the 80th Legislative session, TxDOT was given "more funding than ever before."

Officials: Transportation Department is broke


By Dave Pasley - Staff Writer
Boerne Star
Copyright 2008

Texas Department of Transportation officials are not mincing words. The agency is broke.

“We are running out of money for new construction,” TxDOT Deputy Executive Director Steve Simmons said in an article for the November-December issue of Texas Professional Engineer.

And, the shock waves from the funding crunch are beginning to be felt around the state.

In Kendall County, TxDOT scrapped two projects worth $7 million from next year’s construction plans, and the agency tried to rescind a third, $500,000 project for a traffic signal at the new Champion High School, before state legislators intervened and the project was restored.

The projects that were cut in 2008 — widening North Main Street from FM 1376 to Interstate 10 and adding new storm drains on Main near Cibolo Creek — are simply being pushed back to 2009. The problem with that is that TxDOT officials expect statewide funding for new construction in 2009 to tighten even more, shrinking another 6 to 19 percent.

“I don’t know that anyone who went to school to become an engineer could have imagined the complex and emotional issues we would have to tackle in the transportation field today,” Simmons wrote in the article. “The political and financial factors that weigh on our decision-making process would seem foreign to our predecessors, but they are now simply part of the terrain in our profession.”

But it is not just civil engineers who are adjusting. State and local politicians long accustomed to TxDOT carrying the funding load may now have to look to local taxpayers to fund and construct major transportation improvements.

To help readers understand these changing dynamics the Boerne Star has invited local officials to answer questions regarding the changes that are taking place at TxDOT.

In the next edition, Kendall County Judge Gaylan Schroeder and Boerne Mayor Dan Heckler talk about how they plan to adjust to the changes at TxDOT.

Today’s questions regarding the future of TxDOT, are directed to State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who represents Kendall County in the Legislature.

Q: Deputy Executive Director Simmons seems to place a lot of the blame for TxDOT’s funding shortfall on the State Legislature. For instance, in the Texas Professional Engineer article Simmons says “The Texas Legislature shifted more than $1.5 billion from the State Highway Fund for the 2008-09 biennium to pay for other state priorities” and “The 2007 Texas Legislature passed SB 792 which restricts TxDOT’s access to private sector investment to pay for the state’s transportation needs.”

Also, in other venues, Simmons and many others have placed some of the blame for the decline in project funding on the gasoline tax, which is not indexed to inflation and has not been increased since 1991. That tax is also in the purview of the Legislature.

What is your take on all of this? Is there a funding crisis and, if so, whose fault is it?

Sen. Wentworth: The Texas Department of Transportation is not broke.

During this year’s regular legislative session, we provided TxDOT more funding than ever before. TxDOT, like the rest of state government, operates on a two-year budget cycle, and for the biennium, which began on Sept. 1, their appropriation was $16,978,016,740, an increase of $1,815,921,332 including a $300,000,000 contingency rider that was certified by the Comptroller.

Before I go any further, let me share a little background information.

Since 1923, when the Texas Legislature began taxing motor fuel, 75 percent of the revenue has been constitutionally dedicated to transportation, and 25 percent has been dedicated to public education. If all of the state motor fuel taxes were to be re-dedicated to transportation, we would have to find another source of revenue for public education.

In addition to motor fuel taxes, other revenues, such as automobile registration fees and federal funds, pay for transportation. These combined funds create Fund 6, which is the portion of the state budget devoted to transportation.

As many of you know, last session, we passed Senate Bill 792, which established a two-year moratorium on certain statewide toll projects that involve a private entity operating or collecting revenue on a toll road. In addition, that bill authorized the Texas Transportation Commission to issue bonds up to $6 billion, up from $3 billion.

I acknowledge that TxDOT is being asked to do more with less, particularly since the federal government is constantly reducing the state’s share of transportation dollars. I understand that infrastructure finance of this magnitude is very complex, but I do not agree with the statement that the agency is broke.

Q: What is your solution to this problem, not what you think is going to happen, necessarily, but what you would like to see happen?

Sen. Wentworth: I have often said that Texans, like myself, have become accustomed to having the best of everything: schools, highways, parks, etc. We are not, however, used to footing the bill.

Up until the early 1980s, taxes on oil and gas production paid for a large amount of our state budget. As oil and gas production diminished, so did the revenue, and we are realizing the full cost of the infrastructure needed to support our booming economy.

First of all, I believe we need to be honest with ourselves and realize that we cannot build and maintain the highway system needed by modern day Texas without an increase in revenue, whether it be from motor fuel taxes, tolls or other sources.

The fact of the matter is motor fuel taxes are barely able to maintain the system we have in place, much less finance new construction.

Realistically, I believe we should use all of the financing options that are available to us to work our way out of our mobility predicament. In my mind, motor fuel taxes could be indexed for inflation and used primarily for maintenance, and new construction would be paid for with bonds, tax-increment financing or tolls, as long as the toll road is adding bona fide new capacity and is not a conversion of an existing road.

Q: OK, now we know what you would like to see happen, what do you think will happen?

Sen. Wentworth: As to what will happen, I believe TxDOT will continue to promote toll roads as the solution to our mobility woes, but I also believe Texans will accept the fact that we do have a crisis and become more willing to pay for solutions other than tolls, as long as they see progress being made.

Frankly, I see that trend already. Many of the letters I receive regarding transportation issues acknowledge that more money may be needed to address mobility issues, and express a willingness to pay it, just not through tolls.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with the Transportation Commissioners and TxDOT staff, and I am hopeful we can arrive at a solution to our mobility problems.

© 2008 Boerne Star Co

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