Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"The height of irresponsibility."

Not serious on roads

April 30, 2008

Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2008

Rick Perry can’t be serious.

He says he is — seriously devoted to building and maintaining highways. But he is just as devoted to fencing state government into fiscal straits that make these goals impossible without privatizing highways through tolls.

Perry last week said that going full-bore with toll roads is the only way for Texas to build new highways. That’s not so. The history of Texas tells us it’s not.

Toll roads have their function without question. But so do bonds. So does a gasoline tax that has not kept pace with inflation. So does a reexamination of how Texas funds highways in general — including a look at how highway funds are siphoned off for non-highway purposes.

“This is a place for big challenges, not big excuses,” Perry told a Texas Transportation Department meeting last week. Nice sentiments, but words do not concrete make.

The last Texas Legislature bowed its back at Perry’s my-way-or-no-highway fixation on toll roads. Part of this regards blowback against the Trans-Texas Corridor, an entity that seems to have some Frankenstein in it — a life form unto itself owing only to Perry’s TxDOT laboratory.

What lawmakers are saying is that the agency must be accountable to the legislative branch as well as the executive.

“The Legislature must understand that ‘no’ is not a solution,” Mr. Perry said. “It is an abdication of responsibility.” No argument, there. But the logjam goes both ways.

With rapid growth, Perry said the cost of building and maintaining the state’s roads is far beyond what tax revenues will pay for. That’s only if leaders like Perry refuse to look at revenue sources other than tolls.

Waco is made to feel that the only way Interstate 35 can be expanded through town is toll lanes. The choice is framed as firing squad or firing squad.

Lawmakers have serious questions about long-term costs of toll roads and about contracts with private companies that, say state auditors, have been too cushy.

At the same time, lawmakers have a nasty habit of using dollars from the gasoline tax to pay for any number of things that don’t build and maintain roads.

Perry is right to deride lawmakers’ “addiction to gas tax money” as a budget-balancing tool. But, then, he signs the budgets.

The height of irresponsibility at this point is for the state to say basically that it can spend money on construction but not maintenance, or vice versa.

Texas has the resources to do what it needs. Through bonds, through the gasoline tax, through better budgeting, and through judicious use of tolls, it can get moving.

Take any of the above off the table and you’re not serious.

© 2008 Waco Tribune-Herald:

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