Monday, February 01, 2010

“What we observe is a push for a gas tax increase in order to have more money to borrow against for yet more toll roads.”

Legislators debate road funding


By Josh Baugh
San Antonio-Express-News
Copyright 2010

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers on Monday hammered home that without a new funding method, the Texas Department of Transportation will be unable to build any new roads beyond 2012 and will not have enough money to properly maintain existing roads within two to three years.

They also demonstrated that finding a new funding solution they can agree on won't be easy.

Legislators on the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security and the House Committee on Transportation grappled with the use of “public-private partnerships” and comprehensive development agreements, or CDAs, that in some cases privatize toll roads.

Senate chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, chastised language often associated with toll roads — that drivers can “choose” to use them. Carona said it's “disingenuous” to say drivers will have an option if the only way to fund new road construction is by tolling them.

“If every new road going forward is a toll road, that's no choice,” he said.

Looking into other potential sources of dollars, Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, asked Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi whether her board, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to oversee TxDOT, supported an increase in the gas tax — something Perry has said he opposes. Delisi said it's not the commission's role to determine how much the gas tax should be increased — that's the legislature's job.

Increasing the gas tax has been a political hot potato, but it's an issue that's gaining traction among lawmakers. It's unclear, however, what chance it will stand during the 2011 legislative session.

What is clear is that lawmakers say they know something must be done to address the funding shortfalls. Based on anticipated, long-range price hikes, the purchasing power of the state motor fuels tax — 20 cents per gallon — is declining, Delisi said. TxDOT needs a stable source of funding, she said, though it's not the transportation commission's role to say where the money should come from.

Local leaders, including Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, implored the committees to consider increasing and indexing the state gas tax. The last time legislators increased it was in 1991.

Wolff also asked lawmakers to give local governments the authority to ask their residents to approve an option tax to fund local transportation projects. A local-option measure failed in the 2009 legislative session.

Lawmakers also discussed other measures to boost transportation funding, including ending diversions from the gas tax and increasing vehicle registration fees. Under that scenario, House committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said TxDOT would increase the number of projects it would do, helping to address the state's substantial infrastructure needs.

Texas is in the midst of spending $4 billion on road projects — including $2 billion from federal stimulus dollars — but Delisi said the state's highest priority needs aren't all being addressed because projects needed to be “shovel-ready.” Only a reliable source of revenue would allow for those highest priority projects to be built, she said.

Terri Hall — founder of the grassroots, anti-toll Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom — told the committees that her organization supports a statewide gas tax increase, but with certain expectations.

“What we the taxpayers cannot allow is a gas tax hike, in addition to the continuation of toll proliferation,” she said. “What we observe is a push for a gas tax increase in order to have more money to borrow against for yet more toll roads.”

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