Friday, October 24, 2008

“When you put a toll road or … a CDA out there, it is going to cost that person much more than it would if you raised the gas tax.”

Taxpayer association panel ponders mobility funding methods


by Mark Lavergne
Volume 13, Issue 12
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2008

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving) renewed calls for reform at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) on Oct. 21 at the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association annual membership meeting. The association researches and analyzes the state’s tax and spending policies.

Harper-Brown spoke on a panel that also included TTARA president William Allaway, Fort Worth city council member Jungus Jordan, and Texas Instruments senior vice president Philip J. Ritter, who is also a TTARA officer.

Harper-Brown called transportation the most important issue facing the state, because “regardless of what your passion might be, whether it’s healthcare or it’s parks and rec[reation], or whether it’s some other area of government that you’d like to see your resources spent on in taxpayer dollars, without mobility, we limit economic growth, and without economic growth, then that limits the amount of money that we can spend in those areas. So we have to make sure that our infrastructure is improved, that we have the increased mobility throughout the state.”

She encouraged looking at multi-modal solutions, like mass transit, as did Ritter. Harper-Brown also said the state could transition off the gas tax, and start collecting taxes according to miles traveled, if it wanted to. She advocated finding other forms of energy for vehicles.

TxDOT reform

Harper-Brown said “all the stars have aligned” for major reform at TxDOT, since the Legislature is mad at the agency, as are the citizens, and TxDOT is coming under Sunset.

“When you get 28,000 comments on an issue” (Sunset staff’s TxDOT report), “never in the history of the state of Texas have we had that many people comment on something — and let me just say they weren’t glowing comments on TxDOT – it’s time for a change.”

Harper-Brown said TxDOT has “branched out into so many different areas, that they’re not doing anything well,” like contracts with private companies, lobbying the Legislature and Washington for certain policies, on top of their traditional charge of building and maintaining roads, which Harper-Brown said they deal with “in their spare time.”

“We’ve got to determine exactly what this organization’s function is,” she said.

Harper-Brown said that the agency needs to address efficiency concerns before any new appropriations could be discussed, citing that 1,174 engineers or architects work there for $2.5 billion in projects, whereas in Florida, 463 such employees work on a $2.6 billion budget.

The department at TxDOT that pays utility bills used to have 40 employees, Harper-Brown said, actually hand-writing the payments before copying and filing them. Going paperless saved the department $50 million and cut the workforce down to 19, she said, even though employees sent emails saying they feared losing their jobs because of the increased efficiency.

“Take that and expand it throughout the agency and look at the dollars that we could be putting into transportation through mobility,” Harper-Brown said.

Florida as model

While the Texas Legislature gives its agency a lump sum of funds to “spend however you want to, with no accountability and no transparency on the other side,” Florida does it better, she said.

There, the transportation department must present a program to the transportation committee with a list of projects it plans to design and build with the money the lawmakers allocate to them.

In other words, the Florida Department of Transportation tells the lawmakers how much money they need and how they will use it. They include timelines for design, environmental evaluations, right of way, and construction.

“For me, as an appropriator, it tells me exactly where those dollars are going to go,” said Harper-Brown. She said that the private sector would benefit also because they would have a better idea of when they can get ready to put up shop along the finished roadway.

Harper-Brown lambasted TxDOT for saying that such a program could not be done because projects take longer than two years. But Florida has similarly ambitious projects and benefits from the system, she said.

Local option

Jordan, the Fort Worth council member, said Fort Worth intends to ask the Legislature in the coming session to authorize a “local regional approach,” to present a “bond-like package” to identify supplementary sources of revenue, which local voters could approve or dismiss in an election.

The bond would apply only to voters in a nine-county area: Dallas, Tarrant, and neighboring counties.

“[We want] to go to the voters with a specific bond that says, ‘Would you consider allowing us to raise this fee,’ via a registration fee for example, ‘to pay for this project, i.e. a rail line from Dallas to Collin County,’” he said. “… Specific dollar amounts to specific voters where every dollar goes back to the specific jurisdiction where the dollar was paid.”

Ritter and Harper-Brown both spoke favorably of such elections, although Harper-Brown did not yet sign off on the specific proposal.

Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton) asked Jordan how the plan would affect the more rural among the affected counties.

Jordan acknowledged that there would be fewer projects in some areas than others, arguing that that the proposal would not add another layer of government, but simply would provide a “regional means of raising money.”

“It really boils down to a prioritization as opposed to a legislative jurisdiction,” Jordan said.

Harper-Brown said the plan would not use a new sales tax or other tax from outside the nine counties. She, Allaway and Jordan sought to allay fears that implementation of the plan would require a sales tax hike.

She also observed that a local option can go for other modes of mobility, such as rail, or a port in places such as the Houston area.

Revenue sources

Harper-Brown repeated calls to stop diversions from Fund 6 and expand its base, which she touted in August at the Texas Transportation Summit in Irving (see LSR, Aug. 15).

She said indexing the gas tax is better than further proliferation of toll roads of comprehensive development agreements (CDAs). “When you put a toll road or a CDA out there, it costs the individual so much more than if you index the gas tax,” Harper-Brown said. “ … What good is it to build more roads when people can’t afford to drive on them?”

Ritter spoke against busting the sales tax cap. He also touted maximizing existing local revenue sources, such as sales tax revenue, ad valorem property taxes, and other fees.

Harper-Brown said if the gas tax were indexed, “I think it needs to be a local option where the dollars go back to the area that generates the revenue.” She objected to CDAs and toll road projects along those lines, saying that the burden for those projects is often placed on local citizens who do not benefit.

“When you put a toll road or … a CDA out there, it is going to cost that person much more than it would if you raised the gas tax,” Harper-Brown said.

“… What good does it do to build toll roads … if no one can afford to drive on them?”

© 2008 The Lone Star Report:

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