Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Leaders must stop pretending that there is a something-for-nothing solution to our traffic problems."

State Senators' View

Texas must face transportation issue


State Senators John Carona & Kirk Watson
Oak Hill Gazette
Copyright 2010

You know Texas traffic is bad. You've heard it will get worse. But what about the state's efforts to get you out of traffic?

Unfortunately, transportation policy in Texas is moving just as slowly as that 18-wheeler sitting in front of you at rush hour. But the trucker is in less denial about the state's road situation than its elected leaders are.

Right now, traffic – and the state's inability to deal with it – is merely maddening. But a decade from now, with tens of millions more people pouring onto little more than the current road network, it will become an economic disaster for individuals as well as businesses.

In February, the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee heard testimony from mayors, county judges, business leaders, transportation experts, finance experts, and the public. The message was clear:

When it comes to transportation, Texas is broke. The state can't afford the infrastructure it needs to keep goods flowing and our economy thriving, let alone accommodate future generations. Stop doing nothing.

Today, the state's transportation revenue almost equals current maintenance costs – meaning Texas can barely maintain existing roads, let alone build new ones. The state can't even borrow its way out of the problem, since so much transportation money is already paying interest on billions of dollars previously loaned to us.

Yes, voters in 2007 approved $5 billion in bonds – debt that will be repaid primarily through sales taxes. But that's a tiny fraction of the tens of billions required for essential projects that are well into the planning stages.

As grim as the funding situation is, however, it's not nearly as depressing as the failure of elected leaders to begin grappling with the problem.

More than a year ago, we outlined steps needed to move Texans through their communities and across the state. Those included ending transportation funding diversions, allowing voter-approved regional funding options, rewriting the nearly 20-year-old gas tax system and reforming the Texas Department of Transportation through comprehensive audit and policy changes.

Since then, there's been a legislative session, a special session, and most of a political primary season. Yet there's been virtually no movement in any of these areas. Even a serious discussion of them – acknowledging the difficult choices Texas faces – has been hard to come by.

Instead, politicians of every stripe rely on simplistic solutions and expectations removed from reality. Some pretend the state can find billions of dollars through some sort of bureaucratic reorganization. Others embrace privately owned toll roads – which are not only more expensive than traditional highways, but also are viewed skeptically, and rightfully so, by Texans who worry about their cost and losing control of our infrastructure.

Incorrectly, some assume that ending diversions alone will provide the necessary funds – it won't. And anti-government demagogues, masquerading as conservatives, have embarked on frantic e-mail campaigns filled with misinformation and lacking any practical solutions.

Texas needs leaders who will honestly present the tough choices that Texans face. At the very least, the Legislature should continue looking for efficiencies while revisiting Texas' motor fuels tax – which hasn't changed since 1991 and no longer keeps pace with the state's growing needs. This represents the most fiscally responsible approach.

And the Legislature must follow through on commitments to end funding diversions away from transportation infrastructure.

These steps would begin to get Texas moving again, while restoring confidence in the Department of Transportation.

But first, leaders must stop pretending that there is a something-for-nothing solution to our traffic problems. The people of Texas know better.

Nothing creates congestion faster than ignoring the obvious ... in this case, rush-hour traffic.

State Sens. John Carona, R-Dallas, and Kirk Watson, D-Austin, are chair and vice chair of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

© 2010 Oak Hill Gazette: www.oakhillgazette.com

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