Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Another 'Caronafiasco' in the works

Carona lays out his priorities in Senate


Michael Lindenberger
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

The oracle has spoken. Dallas' Sen. John Carona, transportation chairman, has set out his priorities in a highly anticipated letter to his colleagues.

The Quorum Report is calling it a Caronafesto, and it is rather thorough.

In it, he says he wants to pass a Constitutional Amendment to "end or begin systematic reduction" of the diversion of gas tax dollars for non-transportation uses. This is something he will have significant support for from the governor and leaders of the two houses of the Legislature. The trick will be how much of the $1.5 billion that is diverted every two years they will be able to restore in this session. A bill filed already in the Senate would restore just $150 million a year -- not much.

Carona set out several other options for more transportation funding, too. He wants TxDOT to scale back its 14,000-plus workforce, and wants to "modestly index" the gas tax to inflation, and wants to issue all the debt the agency can -- in that order.

But he also wants to continue the "less desirable" alternatives, too. Those include traditional toll roads and private toll roads -- and the long-term toll contracts that make the latter option work.

"Given our enormous funding needs, I do not believe we should eliminate this last set of mechanisms unless we are prepared to replace their revenue streams by materially increasing the gas tax. Even though my committee received frequent testimony in support of that option, along with newspaper editorials in favor from across the state, seeking a significant gas tax increase this session (beyond indexing) is a bridge too far."

He also gave support, in a general way, for the concept of local governments holding elections to raise local funds to cover transportation costs -- a key part of the Rail North Texas plan that is being pushed by leaders throughout this region. But Carona is also a realist: He knows the economy is working against the Big Fix.

"What is the potential for passage of all these? Better than any session before, but still mixed. We cannot have that debate in a vacuum, where each option stands or falls on its own as if one has no implications for others. ..."
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