Thursday, October 30, 2008

Gov. Rick Perry and his appointees "remain committed to using increasingly expensive toll roads as a primary means to finance highways in Texas."

Transportation officials to approve TxDOT funds for State Highway 161


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Top transportation officials will meet in Dallas today to formally approve a deal brokered earlier this month between the state transportation department and the North Texas Tollway Authority. The deal pledges TxDOT revenues as a financial backstop for NTTA’s billion-dollar plan to build and operate State Highway 161.

Commissioner Ted Houghton of El Paso has been one of NTTA’s sharpest critics in the past, but on Wednesday he said he and the four other members of the Texas Transportation Commission are determined to help entities like NTTA build more toll roads, rather than continue the costly and at time bitter turf wars that have characterized the agencies’ relationship in the past. “I’ve told my other commissioners, we need to get out of the way and start enabling the urban areas of the state to get over the goal line with some of these projects,” he said.

He said he remains committed, as does Gov. Rick Perry who appointed each of the commissioners, to using increasingly expensive toll roads as a primary means to finance highways in Texas. But he said the extent of the state’s need for new funding has prompted him and others to embrace a hybrid approach to funding — a sharp departure from the ton emanating from the commission last year when debates over private toll roads dominated a stormy session of the Texas Legislature. “We haven’t gotten away from our problem: There is not enough capital (to build the roads and bridges the state needs.)”

Mr. Houghton said he fully supports raising the gas tax to help pay for spiraling maintenance and construction costs, though he said he would want any increase to be limited to indexing the gas tax rate to inflation, so its revenues would grow with the cost of living in Texas.

“I am all for indexing,” Mr. Houghton said. “I think we’ve really shot ourselves in the foot by not indexing it in the past.”

The gas tax rate in Texas has been 20 cents since 1991, and efforts to raise it — or index it, too — have routinely failed. The federal rate is about 18 cents per gallon, and has been since 1994.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, has pledged to introduce legislation that would tie to the gas tax rate to inflation when lawmakers return to the capital in January. Earlier this month, Gov. Rick Perry, who has steadfastly opposed any gas tax increase in the past, said he would not oppose Mr. Carona’s bill, and would not veto it if it passed.

Still, both the governor and Mr. Houghton have said the usefulness of the gas tax rate is fast declining, given that Texans are driving more fuel efficient cars, and over the past several months, driving fewer miles.

They both argue that toll roads, including nearly a dozen planned for North Texas in the next 10 to 15 years, are a fairer way of raising revenues.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News:

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