Thursday, December 18, 2008

"The projections and estimations provided by TxDOT have fallen far short of the level of credibility we'd like to see, and that the taxpayers deserve"

Huge bill is seen coming down road


By Peggy Fikac
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — An eye-popping $313 billion will be needed to meet Texas' transportation needs through 2030, according to a preliminary report that one top lawmaker said may prompt another look at the perpetually unpopular idea of raising the gasoline tax.

The tally released Wednesday by the 2030 Committee — composed of civic and business leaders appointed by Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi — amounts to $14.2 billion a year.

“The only time I've ever seen numbers like this is when we're trying to sign a baseball pitcher,” cracked Drayton McLane Jr., chief executive officer of the Houston Astros and a 2030 Committee member.

He and others on the committee, however, emphasized that failing to keep a proper transportation system would deliver an economic blow to Texas that would dwarf the cost of maintaining the system and relieving congestion.

“It's time for Texas leaders to make sure we continue to have the great transportation infrastructure ... we need to have a good quality of life,” said Ken Allen of San Antonio, a senior vice president with H-E-B who's on the 2030 Committee.

He called population increases “staggering” and noted the large amount of freight trucked through Texas.

Allen said he and others would rather pay taxes up front to maintain roads than pay the increased vehicle maintenance costs that result from bad roads.

Transportation needs identified by the 2030 Committee include pavement and bridge maintenance, urban mobility projects and rural mobility and safety projects. In computing the cost, the panel used plans from local planning organizations.

The precise size of the gap between expected revenue and needs through 2030 hasn't yet been calculated, but the Texas Department of Transportation hopes to have an estimate next month, when lawmakers begin meeting in regular session.

TxDOT's entire budget is about $8 billion a year, but transportation officials must take into account factors such as local funding, which typically picks up one-third of the cost of urban mobility projects.

Still, officials acknowledge they're looking at a big challenge.

“Holy smokes,” said Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, House Appropriations Committee chairman. “There's not that kind of money out there. There's not that kind of credit out there for the state, and most of us don't want to go into debt that far.”

Chisum said projects must be prioritized, but he also said lawmakers likely will have to look at revenue sources, including an increase in the 20-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax and a miles-traveled tax on fuel-efficient cars.

“I think the gasoline tax is probably what we're going to have to look at,” Chisum said — but he quickly added, “I'm not saying I'm the one who's going to carry it.”

Efforts to increase the gasoline tax have gone nowhere in recent times; it hasn't been raised since 1991.

Gov. Rick Perry separately cautioned lawmakers Wednesday against raising taxes.

Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle, however, said Perry has said if lawmakers approve indexing the gasoline tax to inflation, and if the idea is put on a statewide ballot for voter approval, he wouldn't stand in its way.

Castle said Perry prefers tolls as a fairer funding choice.

The 2030 Committee didn't include revenue sources for meeting the needs it identified.

The report was taken with a grain of salt by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, a member of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is reviewing TxDOT.

“In my observations ... the projections and estimations provided by TxDOT have fallen far short of the level of credibility we would like to see, and that the taxpayers deserve,” McClendon said.

The periodic Sunset review is being conducted in the wake of questions about TxDOT's finances and controversy over its handling of planned public-private partnerships on toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The Sunset panel has recommended creation of a legislative oversight panel for TxDOT.

© 2008 KENS 5 and the San Antonio Express-News:

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