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Still arguing about road funding

I still don’t quite get why the obvious solution is so blithely dismissed.

With most of the work of developing a state budget behind them, lawmakers can now drill deeper into the state’s spending plan to find a way to fund billions of dollars in road maintenance, highway upgrades and other projects under the umbrella of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Highway department officials went into the session estimating the agency needed $4 billion more per year, about as much as it currently spends on new highway construction annually. To seriously dent the congestion crisis, some have said TxDOT needs about $12 billion per year. The agency is carrying about $23 billion in debt, as estimated by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

Under present scenarios, TxDOT will have about $2.5 billion for new construction in 2015. Lawmakers say this isn’t enough to meet the needs of a growing state.

“It is within our means to address it; we just need to do it,” said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Some revenue can come from relatively easy fixes, Williams and others said, such as ending diversions – mostly to law enforcement – from the revenue collected from Texas’ 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax. Ending the diversions, about $1.5 billion a year, would create a funding gap somewhere else but would fulfill a goal of using all transportation tax revenues for roads, ports and rail.

The gas tax alone cannot pay for the improvements, however. Texas lawmakers have not increased it since 1993, creating a huge funding gap for road projects. Because of changed driving habits and better fuel mileage, Pickett noted, the average driver paid about $12.50 a month in fuel taxes two decades ago. Now that driver pays about $9.54. TxDOT estimates road construction costs have increased 62 percent in those 20 years.

Increasing the gas tax isn’t an option, officials said. For one, no one supports raising taxes, Williams said. Secondly, as cars become more fuel efficient and electric vehicles grow in popularity, the usefulness of the tax is declining.

Ending diversions, most of which is funding for the Department of Public Safety, is a popular option, but as noted no one ever discusses how to fill the hole in general revenue that would leave. It now looks likely that money from the Rainy Day Fund will be used to start an infrastructure bank, but that’s one-time money and all this would really do is push more of the responsibility for transportation away from the state and to counties, which among other things would mean a lot more toll roads. Williams’ preferred solution is raising vehicle registration fees, which has support from the Texas Association of Business. I don’t necessarily oppose this, but I haven’t seen a comparison of how much revenue that would bring in versus how much a ten-cent increase in the gas tax would bring. I recognize that advances in fuel efficiency and the advent of hybrids and electric cars makes the gas tax a declining source over time, but it’s still the single biggest source of revenue for transportation, and it’s the only one that has any connection to how much one uses roads and highways. It’s also the case that a small increase in the gas tax plus indexing it to inflation of construction costs would wipe this problem out. Down the line, a transition to a vehicle miles traveled tax can deal with the issue of less revenue from better fuel efficiency. I know, I know, nobody likes raising taxes but now that we are finally admitting to the need for more revenue it just amazes me at how quickly the most obvious solution is dismissed. Can’t we at least talk about what it would look like to raise the gas tax so we can have a basis for comparison to all these other proposals? A more informed discussion, that’s all I’m asking for.

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