"Representative government (us) shouldn’t be in the back seat... We should be holding the steering wheel."
That was a revealing exchange this week between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and the Texas Department of Transportation.
Dewhurst wrote the agency wondering why it could claim it is hurting for money when voters have approved roughly $9 billion in bonds for highway construction.
The agency responded that the Legislature has to enable the funds before it can spend them.
Other lawmakers accused the transportation department of acting like a fourth branch of the state government in the way it has put the pedal to the metal on toll roads.
The agency responded that that’s the price to pay for a funding crunch that’s due in part to lawmakers raiding gasoline tax dollars to pay for things other than road construction.
Not that Dewhurst and lawmakers don’t have excellent points, but they need to acknowledge that the problem is at their feet.
If the Texas Department of Transportation is to be more accountable, they need to make it so. And if it is to do what it must without overreliance on tolls, they need to fund it better.
No question, the agency has been like a free agent setting its own policies independent of the Legislature.
Who gave the go-ahead to the Trans Texas Corridor? Gov. Rick Perry says the voters did in a vague ballot initiative a few years ago. Whatever the case, there was little discussion of something that would so fundamentally alter the Texas landscape.
In the same way, the transportation department was barreling ahead with toll roads amid concerns about long-term contracts and lack of transparency on the toll agreements. Angry lawmakers last year imposed a two-year moratorium on most toll roads to examine the whole approach.
Representative government (us) shouldn’t be in the back seat or on the side of the road when it comes to highway policy. We should be holding the steering wheel.
At the same time, lawmakers must acknowledge that by being too miserly they have undermined the quest to keep Texas’ highways up-to-date and sufficient to meet demand.
They have been reluctant to increase the state motor fuels tax, even though it would make a big difference and would hitch a ride on the expenses of out-of-state travelers in paying for wear and tear on Texas highways.
At the same time, they have allowed too much of those gas-tax funds to be used for things other than highways. That’s a conveniently devious means of balancing the budget without raising other taxes.
Texas’ elected government should be setting highway policy. At the same time, Texas needs to stop pleading poverty. It has the resources. It just needs the political will to put them to use for the public good.
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