Friday, December 19, 2008

"Seen in a political light, the new estimates represent a throwing down of the gauntlet by a beleaguered department..."

Panel estimates road needs at $313 billion by 2030


Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

The price tag to keep Texas moving apparently keeps getting bigger.

A panel of business and civic leaders appointed by the state Transportation Department issued a report Wednesday that says Texas will need to spend $313 billion by 2030 to keep its roads in good repair and prevent traffic from getting worse in its major cities.

The staggering numbers – which would easily triple TxDOT's yearly spending on new projects – come just weeks before the start of a new legislative session, during which lawmakers are expected to battle fiercely over everything related to transportation, including toll roads, taxes and the future of the sprawling department itself.

Seen in a political light, the new estimates represent a throwing down of the gauntlet by a beleaguered department that has been warning for years that Texas spends far too little on transportation – even as soaring costs of maintaining the nation's largest network of highways and bridges are quickly canceling its ability to build roads to ease congestion in cities like Dallas.

Senior lawmakers have said for months that they will provide TxDOT with new money during the coming session. But they have shown no appetite for anything close to the $14 billion a year the department would need to meet the needs outlined in Wednesday's report.

Instead, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and other top leaders have encouraged the department to issue as much as $8 billion in new debt to meet immediate needs and pledged to find money to help cover the debt service.

But others in Austin said the eye-popping totals could galvanize support for efforts to end what TxDOT and many other observers call a chronically underfunded state highway trust fund. Sen. John Carona's bill to increase state gasoline taxes by indexing the 20-cents-per-gallon rate to inflation is sure to be at the center of any debate. Mr. Carona, a Dallas Republican, is chairman of the Senate transportation panel.

That idea has failed in the past, as tax-loathing legislators refused to increase rates. But this year, with gas prices dipping, Mr. Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry, in interviews with The News, have promised to avoid working against such a bill. Both men said they'd sign it if it passes.

Steven Polunsky, a top aide to Mr. Carona, welcomed the estimates. But he said it's just one step in what will be a complicated dance come January.

"There is no questions that the needs are there, and that they are large," he said.

The numbers

TxDOT's many critics are likely to see bias in any set of numbers, especially ones presented so close to the start of the Legislature. But TxDOT chairwoman Deirdre Delisi defended the estimates and the panel Wednesday.

"Anyone who has traveled to Dallas or been to Houston doesn't need to wonder about how real these numbers are," Ms. Delisi said Wednesday in announcing the panel's conclusions. "They are what they are. The needs are real. And I think it's important to recognize that these numbers are put together by outside experts."

Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said judging by the cost of projects needed in North Texas, the statewide figures appear reasonable.

"Those numbers sound fair to me," Mr. Morris said. "I think it is better to make sure the Legislature knows what the costs are. It's better to tell them, even if the numbers are so huge they will never be able to address them in a single legislative session. It is important for them to know what the shortfall is."

North Texas alone, he said, expects to need nearly $130 billion by 2030.

Other issues

Still, there are factors the numbers did not address. With a recession gathering strength, some projections of population growth may be decreased in the coming years. No attempt to adjust for that was made in the estimation of Texas' transportation needs, said Dr. C. Michael Walton, the University of Texas at Austin engineering professor who led the panel.

And the panel did not look into whether a decline in U.S. driving that appears to have begun a few years ago will develop into a long-term trend that could act as a brake on traffic in areas like Dallas and Houston.

Phil Russell, an executive at TxDOT, said such declines have proved temporary.

But whether the total will be $313 billion or some smaller number, Mr. Morris said, the focus should be on the need for more funds.

Still, he said, there's no reason that all the money needs to come from the Legislature.

A federal transportation bill is due in 2009, and transportation experts and state officials from across America have demanded that the bill include a huge increase in federal support for highways. They are also calling for transit and other initiatives that would potentially decrease the need for some of the highway projects scheduled for 2020 and beyond.

"We need to remind everyone [that] this Legislature is not being asked to meet all these needs, some are congressional responsibilities and some are local," Mr. Morris said. "We just want to make sure the Legislature understands the magnitude of our needs."

© 2008 The Dalas Morning News:

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