The choice isn’t whether or not to pay, it’s how do you want to pay.
Despite broad agreement that repairing and improving Texas highways will cost more money than it has in the past, legislators split Monday on whether now is the time to impose new transportation taxes or fees.
House members attending the annual Texas Transportation Forum said lawmakers were unlikely to support increasing transportation revenues. Senators, however, said this seemed unavoidable.
“There are times when taxes are the conservative thing to do,” said Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.
Across Texas, transportation officials estimate they need an additional $3 billion for new construction and $1 billion for maintenance. With state and federal coffers tight, conference attendees said, new revenue sources are the best solution – but a tough sell to lawmakers.
“It should be looked at as an investment, not an expense,” said William Thompson Jr., former New York City controller, a speaker at the transportation forum.
The recent template for getting projects moving in Texas has been development agreements between the Texas Department of Transportation and regional officials, and $13 billion in borrowing. State transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said the three most recent Houston-area projects to proceed – construction of part of the Grand Parkway and improvements to U.S. 290 and Texas 288 – advanced through partnerships with the Harris County Toll Road Authority and other adjacent counties.
But now “the credit card is maxed” and new taxes are likely, Eltife said.
“I was fine before I came to this office, and if they kick me out of office I’ll be fine,” Eltife said to applause from the crowd.
I’d need to look up the amount, but all that borrowing we’ve done to finance road projects in Texas is going to cost us a lot of money in interest payments. That’s another thing that will need to be paid for somehow. The solutions being discussed now include not diverting any more funds from the gas tax revenue, which would add about $300 million to the road funds but which would leave a hole of the same size in general revenue – the diversion is mostly to pay for the Department of Public Safety, so ending that diversion is no sure thing – and doubling the vehicle registration fee, which has a reasonable shot at passing and would raise about $1 billion. Personally, I think Sen. Eltife is right, and the sooner we accept that the sooner we can start actually making headway on this. It may be the case that driverless cars will ultimately reduce the amount of road space we need, but who knows when that might happen, and until then there are some crying needs that have to be addressed. Better and in the long run cheaper to accept reality now. The DMN, the Trib, Dallas Transportation, and EoW have more.