Sunday, February 14, 2010

"TxDOT last year set a record when it awarded $9.4 billion in contracts, and it has about $4.5 million available annually this year and next..."

This TxDOT idea might make too much sense to happen


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2010

Scan the Texas State Directory and you won't see very many engineers among the 181 members of the Legislature. There are five, to be exact.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, 65, a Republican now in his fourth year representing Jacksonville , is on that short list. And that helps explain why his legislative style sometimes comes off as quirky in the insular world of the Capitol. Nichols seems to have this crazy idea that if there's a problem and you find a rational solution to it, well, then maybe that ought to become the law.

Take the looming fiscal train wreck for transportation.

The Texas Department of Transportation last year set a record when it awarded $9.4 billion in contracts, and it has about $4.5 million available annually this year and next, still a healthy amount historically. But then comes trouble, with the department pretty much borrowed out (facing close to a billion dollars in annual debt payments) and the federal stimulus largesse gone.

The rhetorical response to that from most legislators (and gubernatorial candidates, both incumbent and challengers) has been along these lines: Don't raise the gas tax, don't build too many toll roads and don't let the private sector get involved much (Gov. Rick Perry's views on those last two are a conspicuous exception). Instead, most Texas politicians say, let's cut waste at TxDOT (always a handy and safely vague suggestion) and end the "diversion" of gas taxes and vehicle registration fees from transportation to the state's general spending.

Problem is, no one can really put a dollar figure on that presumed TxDOT waste. And even throwing into the transportation kitty the remaining $1.2 billion of diversions every two years would make only a tiny dent in what's needed to stem urban traffic congestion, maintain existing roads and fulfill ambitious high-speed and urban rail plans.

Enter Nichols.

At a recent joint hearing of the House and Senate transportation committees, Nichols had a suggestion. The state's 6.25 percent sales tax on vehicle sales generates almost $3 billion a year , money that now goes to general state spending. You could call it a diversion as well. Why don't we put that money into transportation, Nichols asked.

"I'd be willing to run with it, if you think it's a good idea," Nichols said.

Metaphorically speaking, you could hear the crickets chirping at that point.

The problem is that the rest of state government has its own money problems, too. That $6 billion every two years would blow a big hole in the overall budget, one that might have to be filled with higher taxes or fees. Yet, can anyone really argue that selling a F-150 pickup has anything to do with education, or prisons, or social services?

But what does Nichols know? He's only an engineer.

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