Monday, January 12, 2009

"A visceral fear of the word "tax" has impeded any efforts to keep up with Texas' burgeoning traffic demands."

The proof will be in lawmakers' funding plans


The Lufkin Daily News
Copyright 2009

Perhaps we should take heart that several local "mobility advocates" came home from Austin after a three-day forum buoyed by what they described as a fresh atmosphere for Texas transportation planning.

Former White Oak Mayor Tim Vaughn and SWEPCO executive Keith Honey are both credible civic leaders who we trust to look out for East Texas interests. We just hope their optimism about the future of Texas roads is not premature.

Despite the good news that the Texas Department of Transportation is stepping back from Gov. Rick Perry's controversial plan to use private developers to build his massive pet project — the Trans Texas Corridor — we still have not heard any rational discussion about the funding of much needed highway projects across the state.

A visceral fear of the word "tax" has impeded any efforts to keep up with Texas' burgeoning traffic demands on major interstate corridors and on vital regional and local arteries. Because of that fear, lawmakers have failed to provide sufficient funding to TxDOT for nearly a decade, prompting both the governor and highway officials to seek alternative routes.

The result has been a growing focus on the development of toll roads such as Tyler's new Loop 49 or Austin's new Texas Toll 130 bypass. The problem is that while they might make sense in some situations, such as the TT 130 route that allows Interstate 35 motorists to avoid the pitfalls of driving through Austin, toll roads are not a viable solution to all of our state's highway needs.

In the case of the Trans Texas Corridor, landowners' fears over the plans to cut several 1,200-foot wide swaths across Texas for multi-purpose corridors were exacerbated when Perry and transportation officials decided the best way to develop the concept was to sell the rights to private contractors.

Public officials who are serious about keeping up with the state's responsibility to build and maintain a highway system that meets Texans' needs have long discussed the need to adapt the state's fuel tax in a manner that would allow revenues to keep pace with inflation and growing needs. The problem is that the utter fear of "new" taxes has hamstrung leaders who refuse to index the gas tax, yet offer no viable funding alternative.

In recent legislative sessions, lawmakers have approved large highway bond programs to help fund the repairs and the new construction needed throughout Texas. TxDOT leaders were reluctant, however, to begin issuing such bonds because without firm commitments for future funding, they feared the debt payments would impede future operations.

So we are not convinced that it is yet time to begin cheering the "positive time" that Vaughn foresees for TxDOT. There might be some renewed commitment on the part of the department's leaders, but without a viable funding plan from the Legislature, their construction plans won't go very far.

© 2009 The Lufkin Daily News:

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