Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Gov. Perry and the Legislature have seen tolls as a way to avoid raising taxes to pay for roads, a position that neither seem eager to change."

Transportation leaders: Texas needs more money for its roads

April 23, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — Maybe Texas’ transportation problems are a lot simpler to understand than recent fights over toll roads make it seem, North Texas leaders told state senators Wednesday.

“My first recommendation: You need to provide a lot more revenue for transportation,” Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, told the Texas Senate transportation committee.

That was hardly the only suggestion from Mr. Morris or the many others who spoke to the committee, which is seeking input as it readies an approach on toll roads, TxDOT and more for the next legislative session.

But it might offer Texas drivers the most meaningful window into what the fighting has been all about lately. No matter who is doing the talking about transportation in Austin, the conversation usually gets back to the billions of dollars Texas needs, but doesn’t have, to pay for its roads.

It is those money problems that have led to clashes over toll roads, privatization, or other hot-button issues. Tensions between the North Texas Tollway Authority, lawmakers and state transportation department leaders flared up most recently in North Texas when the State Highway 161 toll road negotiations broke down at the last minute.

“NTTA should not be expected to solve TxDOT’s financial crisis,” Mr. Morris said after the Wednesday hearing. “But if you aren’t going to give it the money it needs, you can’t blame TxDOT for taking the position that we better squeeze as many nickels as we can out of every … project.”

The state’s biggest urban regions all have big transportation needs, and increasingly their price tags read in the billions.

The push and pull over money has led to increasing reliance on tolls, as is evident all across North Texas. Shrinking tax revenue has meant more and costlier tolls sprouting up all over. And more are on the way.

State Highways 121 and 161 are both under construction, and both will carry higher toll rates than any that North Texans had paid previously. Later this year, TxDOT will partner with a private firm to add six new toll lanes to LBJ Freeway where rush-hour commutes could cost as much as $15 a day. About a half-dozen other toll projects are in the works, too.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, told the transportation committee he chairs on Wednesday that private or public, tolls boil down to the same thing: “Either way, it’s the drivers’ money.”

But Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature have so far seen tolls as a way to avoid raising taxes to pay for roads, a position that neither the governor nor most lawmakers seem eager to change.

Instead, Mr. Morris, for instance, said Wednesday that he’d support a sales tax on gas purchases, a levy that would be on top of the 38.4 cents per gallon Texans pay in state and federal gas taxes already.

This week, Texas Transportation Commissioner Ned Holmes said he’d support an inflation-adjusted hike in the gas tax, and more vehicle registration fees, too. He said those things are needed on top of more tolls.

“This is no single, silver-bullet,” said Mr. Holmes. “But you do need a stable source of revenue.”

But there is a reason Austin hasn’t raised gas taxes since 1991. They don’t like to. And when filling up increasingly means breaking a hundred, voters aren‘t likely going to like it either.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said as much in an interview Tuesday.

“But right now, with gas going $3.50 to $4 and a lot of people having a hard time … now is not the time — I don’t think — to be increasing any taxes,” he said.

He may be right, though some drivers say they’d tolerate higher gas taxes even as the high prices have led them to drive less.

Scott Landfried, 27, a Dallas native who now works in Austin, said he’s taken to riding the bus to work about half the week. Higher gas taxes, he said, might make more people do the same.

"It doesn’t make sense that taxes have been kept artificially low at the 1991 level," he said. "I think they are going to have to raise them. Maybe if they do, people will start to think more about the real cost of transportation."

But bickering over tolls and taxes won’t slow the need for new roads, transportation experts warned at a conference this week in Austin.

“The only thing we could do to avoid this crisis is end immigration and procreation — and we’re not going to do that,” said Jim Bougart, deputy transportation secretary for California. “We’ve tried the reverse Field of Dreams strategy: We figured if we don’t built it, they won’t come. That hasn’t worked, and it is not going to work.”

It’s not likely to work in the Dallas area either, where more than 9 million residents are expected to call home by 2030.

Funding shortfalls

The Regional Transportation Council says transportation projects will cost more than $50 billion more by 2030 than current funding levels of $71 billion will provide. Among the biggest shortfalls:

$12.7 billion more for new tollroads and freeways;

$32.1 billion more for rehabilitating old roads

$6.7 billion more for rail- and freight-related projects

$6.0 billion more for local non-highway roads

$1.1 billion more for right of way purchases

SOURCE: North Central Texas Council of Governments

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