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Your increasingly regular Sid Miller update

What a piece of work this guy is.

For years, a sticker affixed to more than 170,000 gas pumps in Texas featured a straightforward headline — “Fuel Feedback?” — alongside a toll-free number, email address and instructions for consumers with questions.

But in his latest effort to remake the embattled Agriculture Department, Commissioner Sid Miller opted to give the often overlooked stickers a makeover. Under the new design released last week, Miller’s name is in a larger font and is now featured prominently across the top. And near the bottom, he’s added a new disclaimer likely to rub some lawmakers the wrong way.

“All motor fuel taxes are set by the U.S. Congress and Texas State Legislature, NOT by the Texas Department of Agriculture or Texas Agriculture Commissioner,” the new sticker reads.

[…]

When asked why the commissioner’s name is larger on the new sticker, [deputy Commissioner Jason] Fearneyhough said, “The individuals involved in the design are not currently in the office.”

The new language on the sticker is unlikely to help Miller’s already strained relationships at the Legislature, where he clashed with lawmakers last session after asking for a major increase in state revenue for his department.

So what’s the big deal? Ross Ramsey explains:

Miller, who has been in the job since January 2015, unveiled revised stickers this month in response to a legislative change — but revised them in ways lawmakers didn’t require or foresee.

He made his name more prominent, increasing the font size and moving it to the top of the sticker — you never know how many voters might remember it just enough to nudge them next time he’s on the ballot.

State officials are notorious for that kind of stuff, putting their names and faces on everything where it might fit.

[…]

It’s the other stuff on the sticker that elevates Miller’s latest stunt — the notice that the high gasoline taxes detailed on the stamp are not his fault. He’s a good guy, right? He wants the taxpayers to know it.

“All motor fuel taxes are set by the U.S. Congress and Texas State Legislature, NOT by the Texas Department of Agriculture or Texas Agriculture Commissioner,” it reads.

The tax information itself is required by a new law passed last year. The disclaimer was not. And Miller, a former legislator himself, certainly knows that even as he covers his tail with that disclaimer, he’s tweaking the noses of his former colleagues in the Texas House.

So basically, a guy who might need some friends down the line, depending on what the Texas Rangers do with him, went out of his way to alienate (or at least annoy) the people who by virtue of being former colleagues ought to be in his corner. It takes an advanced aptitude for self-aggrandizement to do that, and in the world of politics, that’s saying something. I’ve said several times that I can imagine a convicted-but-appealing Ken Paxton on the 2018 general election ballot. I have a much harder time seeing Sid Miller survive a primary if he gets nailed on either or both of those complaints against him. I just don’t think his act will wear as well. But hey, I could be wrong, and Lord knows I’ll be rooting for him to make it that far. You keep doing you, Sid.

The Prop 7 funds are already being claimed

Get ready for a lot more road construction in the near future.

Voters have a little more than a week to decide whether to give Texas highways a $2.75 billion annual funding boost, but Houston-area officials are already making plans to spend the money.

In the event Proposition 7 passes – the proposal has silent, token opposition – officials with the Houston-Galveston Area Council on Friday approved a revised 10-year spending plan that reflects when area road projects could begin, using the new money.

“Readiness will be the name of the game,” said David Wurdlow, program manager for short-range transportation planning at H-GAC. “We are going to be real aggressive to move projects forward.”

Without Proposition 7 the amount of money available for regional transportation projects is roughly $2.1 billion for the next decade, according to the current 10-year plan. Though not the only source of highway money, the funds directed by H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council are among the most significant to build or rebuild highways.

Adding Proposition 7, officials estimate, increases that total to more than $4.6 billion, taking long-sought projects and moving them much closer to reality much sooner. In fiscal year 2018, for example, Proposition 7 would increase highway spending in the Houston area from $211 million to $696 million.

In 2018 alone, Proposition 7 means an earlier start to two segments of widening Interstate 45 near NASA Bypass 1 in Webster and earlier construction on FM 2100 east of Atascocita.

Another project accelerated by planners is a long-sought widening of Texas 36. Though the road isn’t a major commuting bottleneck, widening it is a major focus Freeport and Waller County officials who contend the highway is a natural truck bypass for the Houston area.

[…]

Like Proposition 1, the money comes with some conditions. Officials cannot pay off any of Texas’ highway debt, which is how many previous transportation programs were paid. All of the funds must be used on state highways – meaning no tollways, transit or alternative modes such as bicycling can benefit.

Some non-highway projects, however, could benefit, if regional officials approve. The transportation council is made up of local elected leaders and the heads of transportation agencies such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority and TxDOT’s Beaumont and Houston offices. Council members use a formula that divides the federal and state funds spent by the agency, which caps spending on non-highway projects, called alternative modes, to between 18 percent and 25 percent of total funds.

If the Proposition 7 windfall gives officials hundreds of millions of dollars more for highways, they could restructure.

“We might be able to move those (highway projects) to the proposition side and move some of those funds to alternative modes,” Wurdlow said.

Prop 7 isn’t raising any new money to spend on transportation, because we don’t do that sort of thing in Texas. It simply mandates that $2.5 billion of sales and use tax revenues in Texas specifically to transportation – in other words, it takes money from one pocket of the budget and puts it in the other. If you’re wondering why legislators who have been writing the state’s budget over the pasty few years were unable to allocate extra funds for transportation on their own, or thinking that this is just another band-aid that doesn’t actually solve anything, you would not be alone. Streetsblog and the Rivard Report present a more comprehensive case against Prop 7, but I doubt it will have much effect. Like it or not, we’re going to see a lot more highway construction in the near future. Better get used to it.

We could have better transportation infrastructure if we wanted it

House Speaker Joe Straus embraces the end-the-diversions approach to transportation funding.

BagOfMoney

Texas’ booming economy and massive transportation needs are inching the state toward simplifying highway spending, officials say.

The latest move to end so-called diversions from the State Highway Fund came Wednesday, when Speaker Joe Straus said the next Texas budget proposed by the House will dedicate all the money from the fund to transportation.

“This approach will make the state budget even more straightforward, just as taxpayers expect,” Straus, R-San Antonio, said in a news release. “It will also provide needed transportation revenue – without a tax increase.”

The highway fund, amassed from state gasoline tax revenues and fees for services like driver’s license renewals and vehicle registrations, goes mostly to the Texas Department of Transportation. Some of the money, however, goes to law enforcement or other uses.

Shifting all the money to transportation would give TxDOT an additional $1.3 billion, Straus’ office said. Other money would be found for the budgets affected, Straus said, although he did not specify a source.

EoW is also on this. Let’s be clear about two things. One is that this doesn’t actually solve the problem of insufficient funding for transportation in Texas. It helps, sure, but it’s not enough. There’s still a gap, which includes paying off a ton of bond debt, and closing that gap involves the same choices that the Lege has studiously avoided making so far. And two, the impression I have always gotten is that the way that “other money would be found” would be by cutting it from other parts of the budget. You don’t think they’d increase spending by $1.3 billion and not offset it somewhere else, do you? We’re likely to have a big enough surplus this biennium to reduce the appetite for that kind of mindless cutting, but there’s also going to be a lot of pressure for mindless tax cutting, and you can imagine what will be more popular. So if this isn’t a stealth budget cut, and if it isn’t a declaration of victory for transportation spending, then it’s OK. If not, we’re being sold a bill of goods.

Meanwhile, the federal government has its own funding problems for transportation.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday tried to turn up the election-year heat on Republicans by demanding fast-track congressional action to finance multi-year bridge and highway projects that are jeopardized by the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund.

The president made his partisan pitch on the banks of the Hudson River in Tarrytown, N.Y., with the deteriorating 58-year-old Tappan Zee Bridge as a backdrop to underscore the price of election-year inaction by Congress.

The 4.9-mile bridge north of New York City is being replaced in a $3.9 billion federal-state project.

Obama said unnamed Republican lawmakers are voting against transportation spending yet willing to take credit at the projects’ ribbon-cutting ceremonies. “They are more interested in saying ‘no’ because they are worried that maybe they’d have to be at a bill signing with me,” Obama said.

Without congressional action to beef up the hard-pressed Highway Trust Fund, money for transportation projects will “run out” by the end of summer, Obama warned. “The cupboard will be bare.”

That could imperil 700,000 jobs, potentially risking continuation of 112,000 active road and bridge projects as well as 5,600 transit projects, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has warned.

Texas has a great deal at stake, receiving about $3.2 billion a year from the federal government for transportation projects. That amounts to roughly 35 percent of the state’s annual spending on projects.

[…]

Sen. John Cornyn said the bipartisan Senate measure being marked up on Capitol Hill on Thursday still faces scrutiny and tinkering by other committees with jurisdiction, including the Senate Finance Committee. Cornyn, R-Texas, is a member of the 26-member panel that will come up with the funding mechanism for the measure, whether a gasoline tax hike, corporate tax “reform” or permission for states to impose tolls.

“As a first step, it is my hope that the bill will be improved as it moves through the committee process,” said Cornyn, the second in command in the Senate GOP leadership. “Congress must be willing to do the hard work of reforming our distorted federal aid system and addressing the solvency of the Trust Fund on a long-term basis.”

The two situations aren’t exactly the same, as there isn’t a quick and easy partial fix available to Congress. But the same comprehensive fix exists for each. Unfortunately, so does the stubborn resistance to it. I don’t foresee that resistance being overcome any time soon.

There are no new ideas, but there are plenty of bad ideas

There’s so much wrong with what Greg Abbott wants for Texas that it’s hard to know where to begin.

BagOfMoney

In his first major policy address as a gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Greg Abbott proposed tighter constitutional limits on state spending and increased constraints on the multibillion-dollar Rainy Day Fund.

Abbott laid out his “Working Texans” plan, which is based on fiscal reform to reduce the scope of government, during a campaign stop Monday in Brownsville.

Abbott said that if he were elected governor, he would propose two constitutional amendments to keep state spending tied to population growth and inflation and to safeguard the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account, from “being raided” by the Legislature.

Additionally, Abbott said the governor should be given “expanded line-item veto authority” to reduce excessive spending. He will face former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken in the 2014 Republican primary.

“I am willing to take on the task of making difficult decisions to reduce government spending when at times the Legislature may not be able to do so,” Abbott said, according to prepared remarks, adding that the state has seen “a troubling trend” of using the Rainy Day Fund to cover “what should be core government operations and expenses. “

Instead, Abbott wants to limit the excessive spending of the fund by only allowing it to be used to meet unforeseen revenue shortfalls, to reduce existing debt, to pay for state disaster relief and to address one-time infrastructure payments.

[…]

In his proposal, Abbott also emphasized the importance of finding a permanent source for additional transportation infrastructure, including a proposal to constitutionally divert a portion of the motor vehicle sales tax to road construction and maintenance.

“We need to stop diverting transportation funding away from building roads,” Abbott said. “Money raised for roads should be spent on roads.”

Texas Politics has this in bullet point form. Let me open with what Burka has to say:

Abbott’s ideas will have the effect of constricting the state’s economy rather than expanding it. He says next-to-nothing about public education, for example, nor does he address health care; in other words, he ignores the two biggest and costliest areas of state services. The only solace one can take in Abbott’s vision for the future of the state is that it resolves the question of whether he would be better or worse than Rick Perry. Astonishing as it may seem, I think he is worse than Perry.

The question must be asked: Is Abbott’s vision what Texans want for their government — or their families? Is this really a state whose leaders have no interest in improving the lives of its citizens? Is Texas really going the way of Arkansas and other backward states where all that matters is guns?

Well, there’s also hating on gays and “illegal immigrants”, plus suing the federal government, but you get the idea. I guess it hasn’t occurred to Abbott that the reason we’re dipping into the Rainy Day Fund for a water infrastructure bank is because we have a vast unmet need for water infrastructure projects and no other politically acceptable way to pay for them. He’s also probably not noticed the gaping hole in Texas’ transportation funding, and the fierce resistance to any way of paying for some of it. Oh, and there’s also the judgment against the school finance system – the suit is being relitigated, but I don’t expect a substantially different outcome – and the millions of uninsured Texans that he and his cronies try not to acknowledge. Clearly what we need is a rigid and restrictive spending cap, because that will solve all these problems with the magic of the free market, or something like that.

The Observer shows the degree of Abbott’s ignorance on the subject.

The idea of tying spending to inflation and population growth is not a new one. It’s been popular among elements of the right for years. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, uber-activist Michael Quinn Sullivan and even Perry have flogged the proposal for years. But it’s never gone anywhere for two main reasons—one, there is little appetite in the Texas Legislature for tying their own hands; two, it’s a bad idea.

Texas is already a (relatively) low tax, minimal services, small government state. Indeed, as Nate Blakeslee pointed out in a January Texas Monthly profile of Sullivan, state spending as a share of both the state’s gross domestic product and personal income has been trending downward for two decades. For personal income, which is what the Comptroller uses to set a spending limit, the share of spending has decreased from around 5.2 percent in the early ’90s to just over 4 percent today. Even using the population-plus-inflation spending limit, Texas’ budget has stayed under that limit for the last decade, according to an analysis by the Legislative Budget Board.

In other words, there’s just not a spending problem in Texas. Which is not the same thing as saying there’s an inequity problem when it comes to how revenues are collected (not having a state income tax, for example, means the poor and middle class take it on the nose with regressive sales and property taxes).

Still, tying the state’s budget to inflation and population growth could further constrain state government. You could pretty much forget about ever investing more in public schools, higher education or infrastructure, at least during non-flush times.

In April, the Legislative Budget Board crunched the numbers. The growth in personal income used to set the spending cap for 2014-2015 was 10.71 percent. In other words, the state could spend almost 11 percent more than it had the previous biennium. Using population growth plus inflation instead would limit spending growth to 6.82 percent. That would mean $2.7 billion less for state leaders to work with. That’s not a huge number given that the 2014-2015 state budget includes $95 billion in general revenue. But lowering the spending limit now would have a compounding effect over time.

That’s probably the point—force future generations to subscribe to the current model of low-ish taxes and minimal services. Abbott more or less admitted as much during a press confab after his Brownsville speech.

“By imposing these standards by constitutional provision it means that for generations there will be limits in the growth of spending in this state,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

However, the Legislature has shown little appetite for any of the proposals Abbott is touting. A bill tying the spending limit to population-plus-inflation is filed every session… and goes nowhere.

The Lone Star Project points out that much of what Abbott is proposing is constitutionally redundant as well. The good news is that by going the constitutional amendment route, Abbott starts from a position of not having enough votes for his ideas, and being unlikely to get any more support for them. But the best way to prevent bad ideas from gaining a foothold is to beat them back at the ballot box.

Maybe the same failed approach will work this time

It could happen, right?

Same hair and same amount of crazy as Rick Perry

Transportation experts now estimate that the state needs $5billion a year to keep Texas moving. The proposal that fell apart in the House this week would add less than a billion annually.

And after months of wrangling, relations between the House and Senate have grown increasingly testy. Republicans, who control both handily, have split between fiscal conservatives concerned over government spending and business-backers concerned over growth and infrastructure.

The House created a special committee to look at the issue. The Senate immediately passed the same measure that failed in the House, to siphon part of the state’s rainy day fund for the Department of Transportation.

“We’re beginning with the House and its working group at the same point where we left it off,” said Sen. Robert Nichols, the Jacksonville Republican leading the effort.

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, had a different term for it: “This is like legislative Groundhog Day.”

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, also predicted more of the same. He said he doubted the required two-thirds of House members would support the Senate bill.

“I don’t think that you can keep pushing uphill the same bill that was losing support, not gaining, as the summer wore on,” Straus said. He has decried the effort to address a major threat to the state’s economic health without considering new revenue sources.

“The governor has made it clear that this isn’t an issue that he is willing to allow us to step back and take a more comprehensive approach to,” Straus said. “So we’re here. We should do what we can that attracts the necessary votes — and take it piecemeal if that is what he is asking us to do.”

The divisions are deep on any proposal, and getting 100 of the 150 members to coalesce behind any plan will be difficult, Straus said, pledging a “good-faith effort.”

During the regular session, legislators rejected any suggestion to hike gas taxes or increase fees on car registrations.

As Paul Burka likes to put it, we don’t have policy in this state, we have ideology. An approach that relied on policy might suggest some combination of right-sizing the gas tax, floating bonds, enabling toll roads where reasonable, and – I know this will sound crazy, but stick with me – seeking sensible alternatives to building more roads. The ideological approach insists that there is blood in this stone, we’re just not squeezing it hard enough. Good luck with that. To be fair, while Speaker Straus clearly recognizes the problem here, it’s not clear that there would be enough support for the sensible approach. Even if Rick Perry were to be replaced by an alien that preferred sensibility to sloganeering, I don’t know that you could find a majority in the House and two-thirds of the Senate to back an increase in the gas tax, no matter what other provisions were in there. (What’s that you say? We don’t need a two-thirds majority in the Senate in a special session? Silly rabbit, we only drop the two thirds rule for important things, like voter ID and abortion restrictions.) As with many other things, nothing will change until the composition of our government changes.

House passes different transportation bill than the Senate passed

Our endless summer of special sessions isn’t over yet.

snl-church-lady-special

The Texas House on Thursday gave final passage to a measure to boost funding for transportation projects, though few members expect it to survive the Senate without significant changes.

After more than an hour of debate, the House voted 108-25 for House Joint Resolution 2, clearing the 100-vote threshold required of proposed constitutional amendments. If the Senate changes the measure as expected, a conference committee would need to be called for House and Senate members to work out the differences. The Senate is scheduled to convene again Friday.

HJR 2 would ask voters to approve amending the constitution in order to raise about $800 million for the state’s highway fund through a complicated shifting of different revenue streams including oil and gas production taxes and the motor vehicle gas tax. The Texas Department of Transportation has said it needs $4 billion in extra funding each year to maintain current congestion levels across the state.

The measure’s author, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, stressed that it would not raise any taxes or fees. It also would reduce the state’s reliance on tolling and debt for future transportation projects, he said.

“It gets us another step back to pay-as-you-go,” Pickett told House members before the vote.

There’s nothing wrong with using debt as your primary means of funding capitol projects – since people are often fond of the household budget analogy, however ridiculous it often is, let me ask you how often you pay for your home renovation projects out of cash flow – and “pay as you go” is overrated and often used as a lame excuse for not spending on needed infrastructure. All that said, Texas has relied on debt for transportation funding a lot in recent years – we even issued road bonds a couple sessions ago – thanks in large part to our extreme reluctance to increase our main revenue stream, the gas tax. Toll roads are proliferating like mushrooms after a week of rain in Houston for the same reason. Neither the House solution nor the Senate solution is optimal, but they both at least acknowledge the underlying problem.

The Highwayman succinctly explains the difference between the House and Senate bills.

The House earlier this week approved a plan by Rep. Joe Pickett, D- El Paso, to spend all the money collected from motor vehicle fuel taxes in the state on transportation, erasing a nickel-per-gallon diversion that went to education.

Pickett replaces the money by guaranteeing an equal amount for education from the state’s rainy day fund.

[…]

Senators, led by Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, also would raise about $1 billion for highway maintenance and expansion via their funding plan. Rather than end the education diversion, Nichols proposed keeping gas taxes as they are, but directing half of the oil production tax revenues going to the rainy day fund to transportation.

The Senate plan is simpler, while the House plan has the virtue of being sellable to voters by saying it ensures that all gas tax money would be used for transportation, no more diversions. I think either one of them can pass, and both of them will face opposition from the usual squadron of nihilists.

Trail Blazers adds some more detail about the Rainy Day Fund machinations.

The rainy day fund has about $8 billion. It can’t exceed a cap, which will be more than $14 billion in the next two-year budget cycle. The Senate wants the additional funding of roads to stop if it would decrease the fund’s balance below one-third of the cap, or close to $5 billion.

House leaders, though, say there’s no reason to wall off the state’s savings that way. They note it already takes a two-thirds vote by each house to spend rainy-day dollars.

“We are the floor,” Pickett said.

Under his amendment, the state would shovel $820 million more to highways in fiscal 2015, and $860 million annually by 2018. The Senate’s version would boost road funding by slightly more — $879 million in 2015 and $933 million the following year.

The Texas Department of Transportation currently spends about $10 billion a year.

The differences between the two bills is quite small, and neither comes close to bridging the $4 billion per year gap that TxDOT claims it has; that figure is overblown, but not by enough to make the gap go away under either of these plans. At this point, either the Senate agrees to the House plan, a conference committee hammers out a compromise that both chambers can then pass, or else:

Some House GOP leaders said Gov. Rick Perry has hinted he might call a third special session if lawmakers can’t send him a constitutional amendment to boost road funding.

Perry spokesman Josh Perry declined to comment, calling the question hypothetical.

We really don’t want to go there, do we?

Elsewhere in the House

No action on transportation yet.

House budget writers on Tuesday ended a hearing on transportation funding with no clear decision about how to raise money for Texas roads.

The House Appropriations Committee is considering several proposals to see which has the most support, even if that means trying to pass a combination of bills in the remaining days of the 30-day special session, said Aaron Greg, chief of staff for state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the chamber’s lead budget writer.

The House committee was expected to pass House Joint Resolution 1, which would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment to divert half of the oil and gas severance taxes that fill the Economic Stabilization Fund — or Rainy Day Fund — to transportation funding.

Instead, the hearing revealed lawmakers’ concerns about whether that bill would provide enough funding for roads in the long term. Lawmakers expressed more interest in other proposals to raise money for transportation.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he worried about a safeguard in the bill that was intended to keep the balance in the Rainy Day Fund from falling too low.

Turner said that the minimum amount of money the fund must maintain would start at more than $4 billion, would rise to more than $5 billion in 2015 and would continue to increase over time. At some point in the future, the minimum amount needed in the fund would rise so high, Turner said, that no money from it would be allocated to roads.

“I am very uncomfortable with that because you have a perpetual savings account that becomes very, very difficult to touch,” Turner said in an interview.

[…]

Five other transportation proposals were discussed at the committee hearing. Lawmakers seemed most interested in HJR 2, by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso.

Currently, transportation is funded largely through a 20-cent tax on gasoline, and a quarter of that amount goes into public education. HJR 2 would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to allocate the tax on fuel solely to transportation needs and then use the Rainy Day Fund to replace the lost education funds.

“Pickett’s bill has some attraction for several of us. It’ a lot cleaner,” Turner said. “We simply want to make sure education doesn’t miss out at all.”

HJR 2 would generate slightly less money than HJR 1, but both would produce about $800 million for transportation.

Have I mentioned lately that raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation would generate more revenue, and it would leave the Rainy Day Fund alone? I’m just saying.

Meanwhile, there was progress on the third issue of the session.

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee has once again recommended a bill that would close a sentencing loophole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.

Members passed House Bill 4 with a 5-1 vote Tuesday morning following public testimony Monday.

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburgh, cast the dissenting vote. Canales has been pushing his own version of a new sentencing structure that would allow for life with parole and life without parole. But House Bill 10 also included a lengthy list of mitigating circumstances to be used during sentencing.

Canales’ bill was left pending in committee.

[…]

Prosecutors have asked that state legislatures move 17-year-old capital murder defendants in with the criminal code that covers juveniles, ages 14-16, who receive mandatory life with parole eligibility at 40 years.

The Senate repeatedly has approved a bill that would do just that, but representatives have gone back and forth on what is appropriate punishment for a juvenile.

Senate Bill 2 also has passed out of committee and is waiting on a full hearing.

If either of these bills fails to pass this time around, it won’t be because of a filibuster, that’s all I know.

Transportation funding shouldn’t be intractable

As previously noted, Sens. Tommy Williams and Robert Nichols want to take another crack at finding additional funds for transportation. The problem, as always, is political

“Sooner or later, serious policy-makers have to take control,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said earlier this month. “I think they will, but I don’t know when.”

The latest, best hope is a bill filed Tuesday by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, that would take excess oil production tax revenues and direct them at paying down the state’s road bond debt.

Williams estimated that could mean an additional $700 to $800 million annually for transportation.

[…]

To fund existing repair and improvement needs, the Texas Department of Transportation has estimated it needs an additional $4 billion for the two-year budget cycle.

“Major transportation funding is one of the things that, unfortunately, did not happen during the regular session,” Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond, said. “Without these new projects we risk our economic edge in attracting new investment, jobs and business to this state.”

The state gasoline tax has remained unchanged at 20 cents for 22 years. Lawmakers came to Austin with some funding ideas, from tax increases to higher vehicle registration fees. None gained enough traction to overcome ideological opposition to anything that took money from Texans and gave it to the government.

I presume that last sentence is intended to capture the perspective of the rabid anti-spending crowd, but it’s so jarring that I can’t help but marvel at it. Would anyone characterize a visit to the grocery store as “taking money from Texans and giving it to Charles Butt and Randall Onstead”? If the need to pay for roads and road repair is that disconnected from the gas tax, then I don’t even know what to say. It is always amusing to see another helpless quote from Bill Hammond, as if he were an innocent victim of this breakdown in policy instead of an enabler of it. It’s the same dynamic as the anti-immigrant hysteria of the past couple of sessions that finally got tamped down this year after the politics of it became too untenable for the Republicans. It’s well within Bill Hammond’s power to support candidates in Republican primaries that will work to actually solve these problems, and to oppose the candidates that actively work against solving them. I’d be happy to suggest a few legislators to target in 2014 if that would be helpful to Hammond. This isn’t rocket science.

“I think we all know something is going to give,” said Carol Brace, director of the Center for Logistics and Transportation Policy at UH. “But I feel for them. They are struggling just as we all are to figure it out.”

Emmett said the biggest challenge is overcoming a segment of lawmakers who recognize the need for transportation spending, but oppose any proposal to raise the money. Part of their reluctance, he said, is fear they will get hammered in the next election for raising taxes or fees.

Well, I don’t feel for them, because even the Republicans that are trying to solve this problem in the Legislature have helped to make it so difficult to do by their own anti-tax and anti-spending rhetoric over the years. If we’d been properly maintaining the gas tax all this time and were coming to a point diminishing returns and were now engaged in a debate about how to transition from the gas tax to something that would be more sustainable for growth in the long term, that would be one thing. But everyone knows that the gas tax is still viable, and would largely take care of our transportation needs for years to come if we dealt with it. Hammond, for all his feigned cluelessness, put his finger right on the message to overcome this quagmire, that opposing any and all new revenues to fix the state’s transportation problems – and yes, this includes raising the gas tax and indexing it to the cost of construction – is anti-business. No one wants to be accused of that in a Republican primary. The Republicans created this dilemma for themselves, they can fix it for themselves.

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.

There’s no such thing as a free road

I have an issue with this.

Texas’ boom of toll roads has made the “free” part of freeway mean something different lately.

As toll lanes become the preferred choice for adding capacity to Texas roads, a growing number of state lawmakers and toll critics are looking for assurances that state-built freeways will stay open to everyone. Coming up with a precise set of rules, however, is proving trickier than expected.

“I believe free roads should remain free,” Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, told the Senate Transportation Committee last week.

Campbell is working with Texas Department of Transportation officials to craft a more detailed version of SB 1029, her bill to prohibit existing state roads from conversion to toll lanes. A similar bill by Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the House Transportation Committee.

Last week, TxDOT officials expressed concern that Campbell’s bill could have unintended consequences and curtail upcoming toll lane construction.

[…]

Without an outright ban, critics worry TxDOT will take roads away from motorists, said Terri Hall, founder of San Antonio-based Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, an anti-tax and anti-toll group. She called efforts to toll U.S. 281 north of the metro area “truly highway robbery.”

TxDOT officials stressed that none of their plans include converting free lanes to tolls. Major projects TxDOT has tackled in the past five years mostly were funded by borrowing, state officials said.

Using the paths already carved by freeways makes sense, toll proponents said, especially in places already suffering from heavy congestion.

“The most effective means of addressing that congestion is to add capacity within those corridors,” said C. Brian Cassidy, a lawyer with Locke Lord LLP in Austin, who focuses on transportation and infrastructure law.

“Tolls are not taxes,” Cassidy said. “Tolls present a choice and, more importantly, they present an option to fund and deliver projects.”

Here’s SB1029. I agree with the argument that roads that were built with public funds and which are currently not tolled should remain toll-free. I also agree that there should be some legal safeguards to ensure that public, toll-free roads are properly maintained and not neglected as as way to enable toll roads, especially toll roads built in part or in whole with private capital, to meet revenue targets. But if we’re going to put restrictions on TxDOT and other road-building agencies, we should at least be honest with ourselves as to why toll roads are all the rage these days. You know where I’m going with this – the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in 20 years and is unable to provide sufficient revenue for Texas’ transportation needs. To his credit, Sen. Kevin Eltife has touted a gas tax hike and inflation index to help deal with this. I don’t share Sen. Eltife’s obsession with debt, and I strongly oppose a sales tax increase as a way of dealing with TxDOT’s bond load, but at least Eltife recognizes the problem and is willing to talk about solutions. (Sen. John Carona has also supported increasing and indexing the gas tax.) I’m willing to support Sen. Campbell’s effort here, but she needs to be willing to acknowledge that you get what you pay for, roads included.

We’re not going to solve our transportation issues without new revenue

The choice isn’t whether or not to pay, it’s how do you want to pay.

Sen. Kevin Eltife

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.

What they’re saying about transportation

So far in all the stories I’ve read about the beginning of the legislative session, education and transportation are two of the biggest items everyone talks about. Here’s a sample from the Chron.

Story #1:

[Rep. Ed] Thompson said funding for transportation is another high priority going into the session.

“The gas tax has not been visited since the early 1990s,” he said. “It’s not generating enough money. We’re going to have to figure out a way to fund highways going forward.”

[Sen. Larry] Taylor agreed. “Transportation is a huge issue particularly in our area,” he said. “We have to get more dollars to our roads and highways, and how we do that is up for debate.”

He said fuel taxes and increased registration fees are possible options.

“To build roads and maintain what you have, you need to have funds,” Taylor added. “And the system we have is not doing the job. We need additional funding.”

I cited that article in my earlier post about education discussion. I wanted to revisit it after I saw what was said in story #2:

Transportation is another key issue, [Rep. Bill] Callegari said.

“Texas is doing really well bringing business to the state, but if we can’t bring adequate transportation, they’re going to stop coming,” he said.

Funding for transportation could be a topic for debate, he added.

“We have a gas tax that we use to fund transportation,” he said. “Cars use less gas, and less gas means less income. We’re going to have to look for ways to finance transportation in the future.”

Improving infrastructure is how Callegari believes the state can protect the economy.

“Our economy is doing well, but it is contingent on making sure we have more funding for transportation, water and rail,” he said. “The most important thing is that we can keep rolling to work and keep moving goods across the state to keep our economy moving.”

So is this genuine concern about finding adequate funds for transportation – and they’ll need a lot of funds – or just boilerplate talking points going in to a new session? With the happy budget news, it seems to be more the former, but we’ll see how that actually plays out. For now at least I will note that the discussion has mostly centered on what the state needs and the need to pay for it – water issues are another common thread – and there’s little to no talk about the need to cut back. Again, maybe this means nothing, but it is a different sound than what we were hearing two years ago. Make of it what you will.

The Lege is going to have to spend some money

Whether they want to or not, there are a lot of issues that will be demanding attention and money from the Legislature when they convene in January. For example, there’s water.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday the state’s water supply will be among his priorities after years of inaction by lawmakers. In the previous session, the House balked at two bills intended to create the first permanent funding source for a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other projects to avoid grave shortages in 2060.

The plan would cost an estimated $53 billion, which proved too much for a spending-averse Legislature two years ago.

“That’s always where the conversation breaks down,” Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said of the price tag. “With water, the numbers can be so daunting that it is tempting to throw up your hands.

“We need to begin making some progress. I don’t expect to complete it in one year, but we do need to take the first step.”

[…]

In the 2011 session, state Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican, proposed a tap fee that water users would pay each month for the next 15 years. He also sought the transfer of $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, which was created to help low-income people pay utility bills.

The two bills, which supporters said would have generated $27 billion for the plan, died in a House committee.

Straus did not say how he would help fund the plan, but suggested all options would be on the table.

“I do not want to see a newspaper headline saying a company is uprooting from Texas to move to a water-rich state because we have not addressed this issue,” he said. “Without water, we cannot have a good future for this state.

“We have decisions, but we have no choice.”

The scary thing isn’t the price of this project, or that its price tag is triple what it was a decade ago but that the recent amelioration of the drought has removed any sense of urgency from the Lege to take action. The time to do something was in 2011 when the state was being slow roasted like a bag of coffee beans, but now that we’ve had some rain it’ll be easy enough for spending-averse legislators to rationalize procrastinating again. Despite Speaker Straus’ apparent determination, I will not be surprised if this gets punted.

There’s roads.

The Texas Association of Business has thrown its support behind a $50 hike in the annual fee Texas drivers pay to register vehicles, with the money earmarked for new transportation projects. Meanwhile, some key lawmakers favor dedicating to roads the sales tax from vehicle purchases that Texans already pay.

As the 2013 legislative session approaches, transportation advocates have been trying to draw more attention to severe shortages in road funding, stressing that delaying road work around the state will lead to more congested roads and more expensive fixes later on.

“The cost of doing nothing is very expensive,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who was appointed chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee earlier this month.

[…]

“Clearly this is a difficult task, but the business community in Texas feels like it’s spending an awful lot of time waiting in traffic,” Hammond said. “This would be new money coming in for maybe $15-16 billion of bonds for road construction.”

Rather than raising a current fee, Nichols wants to take a tax that many Texans already pay and dedicate the revenue to roads. He is calling for a constitutional amendment to dedicate the sales tax on new and used vehicle purchases to expanding and maintaining the state highway system and to paying off transportation-related debt. The money currently goes into the state’s catch-all general revenue fund.

The change could be phased in slowly over 10 years so as not to “wreck the budget,” Nichols said. Though the amount of revenue raised for roads would be small at first, knowing that the revenue stream would grow would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to move quickly on perhaps $10 billion worth of new projects, he said.

Nichols predicted that the public would back such a measure because it makes intuitive sense.

As long as you overlook the fact that it won’t bring any new revenue into the system, thus meaning that other parts of the budget would be sacrificed for roads, then sure, it makes sense. It’s just undoing what’s been done before, with funding for things like DPS coming out of the gasoline tax. Raising the gas tax and indexing it to the inflation rate for construction is still the best option, but the increased registration fee at least has the merit of being new revenue and having some support behind it to begin with.

All that’s without even getting into Medicaid, which remember was underfunded by five billion dollars last biennium, or public education, for which an array of freshman Republicans are claiming they support despite the $5 billion they cut from it. (State Rep. Mike Villarreal passed along this handy chart of how much those cuts affected each ISD in Texas.) Whether we expand Medicaid or not, we will be spending more money on it because we have such a large number of poor, otherwise-uninsured residents. I have no idea how the next Legislature is going to deal with these issues – burying their heads in the sand and denying the existence of the problem is always the strong favorite, with obfuscating the issue a close runner-up – but like it or not, they’re there to be dealt with.

We got those bad road blues

So many bad roads, so little funding to maintain them.

Issues including traffic congestion, damage to vehicles from roads needing repair and costs incurred in accidents caused by insufficient safety features on roadways cost drivers in Texas $23 billion annually, according to a study released Tuesday by a national transportation research group.

“Texas has fallen behind in relieving traffic congestion on its major roadways and maintaining pavement conditions on these roads,” said Frank Moretti, director of Policy and Research at TRIP, the group that conducted the study.

The study suggests the condition of Texas roads could be costing individual motorists as much as $2,000 a year.

It also says the condition of Texas roads will worsen without increased funding, a difficult prospect given the state’s budget challenges.

[…]

Lawrence Olsen, executive vice president of Texas Good Roads, an advocacy group that wasn’t affiliated with the TRIP study, said the costs of improving roadways is just the tip of the iceberg. Olsen warned of a “looming fiscal cliff” coming for statewide transportation projects. According to Olsen, many of these are funded by bond proceeds or other short-term funding sources. “Very few of these projects are funded out of pure highway funds,” which Olsen said are not adequate at current levels to maintain road quality, let alone take on new projects.

Olsen noted major revenue sources for the highway fund haven’t been update to reflect increased road usage. Olsen cited the vehicle registration fee, which was last increased in 1985, and the motor fuels tax, which was saw its last bump in 1991.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Texas Association of Business said it would push for a $50 increase in the fee motorists pay to register a vehicle in Texas during the upcoming legislative session. It suggests the revenues raised by this increase could be leveraged to raise $16 billion in bonds for road improvements.

The study is here. You would think if there’s a consensus to spend money on one thing in Texas it’d be roads. That Lyceum poll, crappy as it was as electoral information, did find that people were willing to have their taxes increased for things like education and water infrastructure, but alas it didn’t ask about the much-maligned gas tax. I’m willing to bet there’d be a solid majority in favor of raising it, but good luck finding enough legislators despite the support from Senate Transportation Committee Chair John Carona and then-House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Pickett. We can borrow money to pay for roads, but we can’t fix the badly underfunded revenue source for them, even though we’re all paying for the bad and congested roads we do have indirectly. Go figure.

Roundabouts in the sky

I have three things to say about this.

The words will make you down and out

Imagine driving into downtown Houston on interstates 10 or 45, or U.S. 59, and having to merge with all other incoming traffic onto an elevated, one-way traffic circle around the cluster of skyscrapers.

If downtown isn’t your final destination, you would stay on the circle until you got to the point where your freeway picks back up. Otherwise, you would pick an off-ramp to exit.

For now, the concept – a first-of-its-kind roundabout fed by multiple major highways rather than surface streets – is one of many untested and undeveloped ideas that local transportation entities will entertain as they begin taking a more creative look at how to relieve congestion in the highly developed area inside Loop 610 in an era of declining state funding.

[…]

Ted Houghton, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs TxDOT, turned heads when he described the concept as both “fascinating” and “feasible” during a breakfast address in Houston in early August.

“Believe that, or not, but that is a recommendation,” Houghton told the Houston Realty Business Coalition. “In other words, if you’re coming north on 59 to downtown and you want to get to 45, you will get on that roundabout and get spit out either north or south onto 45.”

Houghton said the fate of the concept largely would be contingent on public input – “the outcry of the folks who are going to drive that and work downtown.”

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said regardless of whether the roundabout idea is workable, it’s indicative of the creative thinking that’s been sparked by an array of challenges facing transportation leaders.

People like Clark are charged with figuring out how best to reduce crippling congestion in a highly developed area while minimizing the impact on traffic flow and the need for more land – all as the area’s population explodes and funding for transportation dwindles.

Clark also noted that Houston has multiple, major employment centers that are as spread out as its suburbs, meaning rush hour traffic doesn’t flow in just one direction. And since multiple, major freeways converge downtown, travelers headed elsewhere often get stuck in the bottleneck there.

1. I gather from Houghton’s comment that the traffic would be going counterclockwise. That would leave the flow of I-10 West, I-45 South, and US 59 North unaffected, but would mean taking a noon-to-eight equivalent detour around the circle if you’re going the other way. I think I can predict what that outcry is going to sound like.

2. The fact that funding for transportation is “declining” and “dwindling” is not the result of some natural law over which we have no control. It’s entirely the result of policy decisions, beginning with the refusal to increase the gas tax over the past 20 years, that leave us now with population growth and transportation needs that far outstrip our ability to pay for them. Rather than come up with these crazy-sounding solutions to work around our entirely self-inflicted problem of insufficient transportation funding, we could, you know, work to redesign the funding mechanism for transportation in such a way as to make it adequate and sufficient for our needs. Some people in Texas are talking about real solutions to our infrastructure problems, others don’t understand the question. Solving political problems is much harder than solving technological problems, but the former are almost always more foundational.

3. I’ll keep saying this till I’m blue in the face, but we cannot solve this problem if we are not working to provide alternatives to taking crowded freeways through downtown for people who don’t really need to be taking freeways. I speak once again of better and more extensive transit, which would make it easier for people who are just trying to get from one place inside the Loop to another to leave the highways to the suburbanites and long-haul truckers. You don’t want people like me clogging up the Pierce Elevated as I commute from the Heights to the Medical Center. There will thankfully be a transit alternative for me in a couple of years, but there needs to be a lot more of this. Highways should be for long trips, not short trips.

Toll hike

I have three things to say about this.

Starting in September, that jaunt on a Harris County toll road might save you time, but it won’t spare your change.

Unless Commissioners Court intervenes, rates at main-lane toll plazas on the Sam Houston, Westpark Tollway, Hardy Toll Road and the one toll booth on the Fort Bend Parkway inside Harris County are scheduled to increase Sept. 8 from $1.30 to $1.40 for EZ Tag users and from $1.50 to $1.75 for cash customers.

Rates would jump from $4 to $5 during peak hours on the Katy Managed Lanes. Westbound peak hours are scheduled to shift one hour earlier, to run from to 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Off-peak rates on the Katy managed lanes would not change, nor would rates on the Ship Channel bridge.

[…]

Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Peter Key explained the need for the increase by pointing to the $1.9 billion his agency plans to spend on capital projects through 2020.

“We feel like we have a compelling argument to make that, for the region’s continued prosperity, there have to be funds available to fund regional infrastructure improvements,” Key said. “The county toll road system happens to be one of the entities that’s still solvent to be able to do that.”

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett said he supports the increase, noting that the county will be able to improve mobility at a time when the Texas Department of Transportation is hamstrung by insufficient gas-tax revenues.

“Like it or not, there’s no highway fairy in the sky that’s going to pay to build new roads or maintain the roads that we have,” Emmett said. “This is just keeping up with inflation, and it allows us to continue expanding the toll road system.”

1. I’m glad I don’t have a daily routine that requires the use of toll roads.

2. Despite Judge Emmett’s comment, it doesn’t actually take a magic highway fairy to pay for the kind of transportation infrastructure the state of Texas needs. It just takes a Legislature and a Governor that recognize the need for it and the willingness to index the gas tax to inflation. Having said that, I must admit that a magic highway fairy is the more believable option.

3. It sure would be nice if Metro could get the resources it needs for the capital projects it has planned this easily, wouldn’t it?

Roads don’t pay for themselves

Ezra Klein:

The 18.4-cents-per-gallon tax is already inadequate to fund current infrastructure obligations, not least because, in recent years, Americans have been driving less and buying more fuel-efficient cars. The good news is that we’re using less gasoline. The bad news is what that does to highway funding. In 2008, Congress had to kick in $8 billion to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent. And the trust fund’s finances will continue to deteriorate in the years to come, according to the CBO:

By 2018, the trust fund is projected to be short $80 billion. That’s the context for the coming showdown on transportation funding this fall. In the House, Rep. John Mica has put forward a transportation reauthorization bill costing $230 billion over six years — essentially a 33 percent cut from current levels. State officials are already complaining that that won’t even come close to meeting America’s infrastructure needs. (One example of our crumbling roads, courtesy of Transportation for America: The average bridge in America is about 42 years old. The average bridge’s lifetime? 50 years.) That’s because House Republicans want transportation funded solely from the ever-dwindling gas tax.

The obvious solution, which used to be a matter of bipartisan consensus, is to raise the gas tax as needed. Indexing it to inflation, or at least to the cost of construction materials, would be an excellent idea as well. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because transportation advocates have been saying the same thing here in Texas for several years, as we watch TxDOT warn about running out of money. Our “solutions” have been poorly conceived toll road schemes and floating billions of dollars in highway bonds. Which then need to be paid back with general revenue, meaning that they’re competing with schools and Medicaid and whatnot for those scarce resources instead of using the funds that were specifically dedicated for that purpose. How shortsighted is that?

Anyway. Keep all this in mind the next time you hear the usual suspects bloviate about how transit systems don’t pay for themselves. The next time one of them writes an op-ed about any of this will be the first.

Don’t forget Texas’ debt

Now that Perry’s Prayerpalooza is behind us and we breathlessly await his Presidential decision, keep this op-ed by former State Rep. Jim Dunnam in mind whenever you hear Perry pontificate about the national debt.

Before Rick Perry became governor, Texas was a pay-as-you-go state for roads, meaning we used current gas tax receipts to pay for new road construction. Our forefathers set up a system where transportation needs were paid for then and now, not by passing the buck to future generations. Under Gov. Perry, all that changed.

Starting in 2001, Texas started borrowing money for new road construction, pushing that cost onto future taxpayers. In just a decade, this debt has grown from zero to $11.9 billion. With interest payments, future taxpayers and our children will need 20 years and $21.1 billion to pay off that debt. There is even more about to be borrowed. In all, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has authority to borrow $17.3 billion, with a 30-year payoff of $31.1 billion, further shifting the burden to our children.

To make matters worse, new transportation debt is being secured by general state revenue, not just the gas tax. The exact same taxes we use to pay for public education, state universities and health care are now being diverted to make bond and interest payments on this debt. Imagine what future Texans could do without being saddled with $14 billion in interest payments over the next generation. They might not have to take money out of their public schools or health care. They might even have a real tax cut some day.

This debt is as potentially crushing on the future of Texas as the federal debt is for our United States. Texas’ borrowing has gotten so bad that we are now spending more annually on debt service than we are paying for new roads. According to TxDOT’s latest figures, we will spend $1.72 billion on debt payments over the next two years, compared to $1.28 billion for new roads.

That $1.72 billion sure would have been nice to have in this budget for other things, wouldn’t it? We wouldn’t have these problems if we were willing to raise the gas tax to keep up with the demand and the cost of building and maintaining our roads. Apparently, paying billions in interest is better because hey, it’s not taxes.

By the way, we have no money for roads

Just another issue we won’t be dealing with this session.

During the next 20 years, the Texas Department of Transportation will need $315 billion to spend on the state’s roads and freeways for maintenance and construction just to keep traffic from getting worse, according to a report commissioned by the Texas Transportation Commission.

The gasoline tax, federal dollars and other fees, which provide almost all of TxDOT’s road funding, are expected to generate only about $160 billion during that same time.

The Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas predicts that the lack of money for road construction and repair will lead to a significant deterioration of Texas’ roads — by 2025, only 21 percent of Texas’ roads will be in good or better condition.

This issue, however, is not likely to get much attention during the current legislative session.

“There’s not going to be a lot focus on transportation because of the budget crisis, which has really no effect with TxDOT,” said Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, a former chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

I don’t know if that’s the same study from a few years ago that I criticized a few times for overstating the need – at the time, it was a pretty transparent ploy to generate leverage for Governor Perry’s various privatized toll road schemes – but it doesn’t really matter. No one will argue that there is a need for more transportation funds, even if we argue over how big the gap is. And the two obvious solutions – raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation, and allowing for local options on taxation for transportation funding – aren’t going anywhere this session. We’ll just kick the can down the road a little more, and hope it doesn’t get lost in a pothole.

Texas lags on rail: Film at 11

I’m pretty sure we’ve seen this story before, but here it is again anyway.

According to a study commissioned by the Texas Transportation Commission, during the next 20 years, more than $300 billion in 2009 dollars needs to be invested in Texas roads and freeways just to keep commute times from worsening.

Adjust that figure for expected inflation and the cost balloons to $488 billion. The gasoline tax, which provides most of the funding for road construction and maintenance, is only expected to provide $160 billion in revenue during the same period.

California, long maligned as the golden state of governmental malaise, has embarked on a different path. In 2008, California voters approved $10 billion in bonds as a down payment on a $40 billion high-speed rail system that will link San Diego to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento via the Central Valley.

Regional transportation authorities have committed about $20 billion to dramatically expand mass transit systems in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, as well as an additional $27 billion to pay for operating the transit systems and improving road maintenance.

All told, the California’s state government and major urban areas will spend more than $80 billion in the next 20 years to transform and expand its transportation infrastructure in a bid to handle the new demand.

I’m pretty sure the TTC study cited in this story is one that was heavily criticized for overstating the funding gap by counting every TxDOT wish list project as a need, but I’m not having any luck searching through the archives right now. Regardless, everyone agrees that there is a gap, that the gas tax is a woefully inadequate revenue source right now, and that Texas would have gotten a lot more federal stimulus dollars for high speed rail if it had had anything resembling a plan for rail. None of this is expected to change any time soon.

And we may have the chance to miss out on a lot more high speed rail funding in the future.

President Barack Obama is calling for a six-year, $53 billion spending plan for high-speed rail, as he seeks to use infrastructure spending to jumpstart job creation.

An initial $8 billion in spending will be part of the budget plan Obama is set to release Monday. If Congress approves the plan, the money would go toward developing or improving trains that travel up to 250 miles per hour, and connecting existing rail lines to new projects. The White House wouldn’t say where the money for the rest of the program would come from, though it’s likely Obama would seek funding in future budgets or transportation bills.

[…]

Obama’s call for increased spending on high-speed rail projects is nothing new. He’s long seen the sector as an area of opportunity for creating jobs and improving the nation’s transportation system. His administration awarded $10 billion in federal grants for high-speed rail projects last year, including $2.3 billion for California to begin work on an 800-mile-long, high-speed rail line tying Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles and San Diego; and $1.25 billion to Florida to build a rail line connecting Tampa on the West Coast with Orlando in the middle of the state, eventually going south to Miami.

Won’t it be fun watching all that money go to other states? Assuming Republicans in Congress don’t succeed in wiping it all out firrst, of course.

On the road to nowhere

Use your own favorite cliche for this.

Texas soon will be shelling out more per year to pay back money it borrowed for road construction than it spends from its quickly vanishing pile of cash to build new highways.

Legislative leaders characterize the state’s transportation funding as a crisis. Most Texans, they say, are unaware of its severity and must be educated before the state can find new ways to finance new roads.

The gasoline tax pays for road maintenance and construction but has not increased in 20 years. Gas tax revenue peaked in 2008 and likely will decline as vehicles become more fuel-efficient.

“It’s not a crisis until everybody agrees that it’s a crisis. Right now, people who don’t understand it are saying, ‘You’re crying wolf,'” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. “Yes, it’s a crisis.”

Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, agrees.

“The gravity of the situation is that in the absence of further action by the Legislature this session, we will literally be out of money for new construction in 2012 in the fastest-growing state in the country and in one of the largest states in the country,” he said. “We need to begin to have a discussion about it.”

[…]

State lawmakers still have $3 billion left to authorize from a $5 billion road bond issue approved by Texas voters in 2007. Williams said he will push for that in the coming months.

The state began borrowing money in 2003 to pay for roads and now owes $11.9 billion. It will cost more than $21 billion to repay those bonds, Pickett said.

“We are trying to warn people,” Pickett said, “Is this the way you really want to go? If you could get everybody around the table and put politics aside, common sense would say the conservative thing to do would be to limit borrowing capacity and put more cash in.”

Naturally, an increase to the gas tax is off the table, because it might actually help solve the problem. And if someone would like to explain to me why issuing bonds like this is not the same as deficit spending, I’m all ears. To be clear, I’m not against spending borrowed money on infrastructure. It’s just that I don’t see why we need to be borrowing money, which will need to be paid back with interest, when we have a less expensive alternative available to us. Clearly, I just don’t get it.

By the way, while it is true that these funds are separate from general revenue and thus not directly related to the budget shortfall, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection. There are no enterprise funds at the state level that don’t get raided for other purposes. The gas tax is also used to fund the Department of Public Safety, and a portion of it is taken off the top for education. There’s been talk for awhile about doing something to stop all these redirections and have the gas tax be used fully for transportation, but doing so would then add to the shortfall. One way or another, it all comes back to a lack of revenue. PDiddie has more.

More on paying for roads and other forms of transportation

Given that the private toll road debate is set to gear up again in Texas, it is fortuitous that the Texas Public Interest Research Group, a/k/a TexPIRG, chose last week to release a report called Do Roads pay For Themselves? You can read the whole report, or you can skip to their press release for a preview of the answer to that question.

Among the findings of the report:

  • Federal gasoline taxes were originally intended for debt relief, not roads.
  • Highways, roads and streets have received more than $600 billion in subsidies over the last 63 years in excess of the amount raised through gasoline taxes.
  • The amount of money a particular driver pays in gasoline taxes bears little relationship to his or her use of roads funded by gas taxes. Drivers pay gasoline taxes for the miles they drive on local streets and roads, even though those proceeds are typically used to pay for state and federal highways.
  • Most state gas taxes are partly offset by subsidies that exempt gasoline from sales taxes.

“Texas needs to make difficult choices about how to fund our states’ troubled transportation system. The first task is to discard common myths about how roads are paid for,” said Slatter at TexPIRG.

The transportation finance system in Texas is broken. Officials at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) have admitted there isn’t enough money for basic road repairs. The process by which the gas tax is allocated is corrupt and lacks transparency.

“The state’s gas tax has been placed in a cookie jar and lawmakers help themselves to as many as it takes to pretend they’ve balanced the budget,” said Slatter. “The process discourages transparency or accountability.”

“This dishonest charade only encourages state officials to seek indirect and short-sighted methods to fund road projects,” Slatter continued. “In Texas, that means pushing the same unpopular private toll road agenda the state has been pushing for close to a decade.”

While toll roads are the closest thing to a user fee, in Texas, the state has turned to privatizing toll roads in order to fund most major highway projects. Privatization deals are fraught with problems and characterized by the same leveraging of debt, reckless shifting of risk and conflicts of interest that caused the financial meltdown on Wall Street.

“Looking ahead to the 2011 legislative session, Texas lawmakers will be faced with serious challenges to fund smart transportation projects,” concluded Slatter. “This report shows that highway spending has been wrongly portrayed as financially conservative. Sound transportation policy requires honest investment in transportation infrastructure that advances long-term needs, rather than continuing on the wrong path towards more debt and waste.”

I should note that there’s already some thought being given to alternatives to the gas tax, and as there has been many times before there’s talk about ending the diversions of the gas tax to other things like education and the Department of Public Safety. Given the extreme unlikelihood that a suitable alternate funding mechanism for DPS would be found this session, I wouldn’t bet on anything happening, but there you have it.

The question of tolls is addressed in a sidebar on page 10:

What About Tolls?

There are, of course, real “user fees” assessed on some American roads: tolls. Unlike gasoline taxes, tolls are true user fees—users pay them, non-users don’t, and users generally pay in proportion to the amount of the service they consume.

The problem with tolling, however, is that only a small portion of the nation’s highways could truly “pay for themselves” in this way. In other words, if the true cost of building, say, Boston’s Big Dig or a rural highway in Idaho were to be charged to its users, the tolls would be so high that they would deter some or all drivers from using them—defeating the purpose of building the highway in the first place.

The recent track record of privately financed toll roads in the United States—which includes the financial struggles of roads such as California’s SR-91 express lanes and Texas’ Camino Columbia toll road—underscores just how iffy a proposition it can be to self-finance modern highways with toll revenue—especially since the private companies have relatively high capital costs and must skim off a profit
share to investors.

The inadequacy of tolling for building a truly national system of highways was recognized by the architects of the Interstate Highway System. A 1938 federal report found that the amount of expected long-distance traffic was insufficient to support toll highways. In the 1950s, experts estimated that no more than 9,000 miles of highway (compared with the more than 3 million miles of highway in existence at that time) could support themselves with tolls.

Just some more data to keep in mind when and if the toll road issue resurfaces. The national PIRG organization has also touted this study, mostly as a way to advocate for a bigger and better funding mechanism for public transportation, a goal with which I heartily agree. Grist has more.

Bumpy roads

This story is mostly about how Houston ranks against other cities in road conditions. Of interest to me is the reasons why we’re not likely to get any better:

At the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the transportation planning body for Harris and seven surrounding counties, roughly $50 billion has been trimmed from a $157 billion, 25-year regional transportation plan. Those funds would have been used for new construction and a variety of improvements and repairs.

The cuts come as the metro area’s population is expected to grow to 8 million by 2035.

At Houston’s Public Works Department, where about 350 workers care for nearly 6,000 miles of streets, the asphalt street repaving effort this year has been cut by almost a fifth. Repairs to concrete streets also are being reduced, said spokesman Alvin Wright.

Patricia Waskowiak, an HGAC transportation planning manager, reported highway and road departments are getting hammered . Short term, she said, agencies face the economic downturn. Long term, the increase in high-mileage vehicles on the roads will lead to drops in the state’s motor-fuels tax — a prime source of revenue for TxDOT.

Further, federal aid for local roads is uncertain. Since its insolvency in 2009, the federal highway trust fund has been bolstered by infusions of general funds money. “What the future holds in the short term is very uncertain,” Waskowiak said.

While traffic gurus count their nickels and dimes, 18-wheelers, endemic to Houston’s highways, keep pounding the pavement.

As has been the case so often recently, the theme is that we get what we pay for. We could afford better roads if we wanted to, but in an environment where rich people whine about a $5 monthly fee that’s dedicated to road and drainage improvements, there’s not much of a push for that. Maybe someday that will change.

DART may take a big step back

Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which has built out a much more extensive rail network than Metro and which has plans for a lot more, may instead scrap most of those plans due to serious financial issues.

Final decisions are months away, but Chief Financial Officer David Leininger warned the board that DART probably will have to cut nearly a third of the spending it had planned between now and 2030.

Only one building project not already under construction or under contract – the final leg of the Orange Line to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport – is likely to be saved. And even that rail project will depend on how aggressively the board cuts overhead, including jobs.

Plans for a second light-rail line in downtown Dallas, until now scheduled to open in 2016, will no longer be funded and are likely to be scrapped unless other money can be found. The line has a projected cost of $505 million to $820 million.

Projects that are under construction, including the Green Line rail expansion to Carrollton, scheduled to open in December, and the first two legs of the Orange Line, due by 2012, will be unaffected.

Leininger said the board will need to trim $30 million to $50 million in annual operating expenses. The higher number will be required if DART wants to preserve the Orange Line leg to the airport, he said.

[…]

In March, DART officials said disappointing sales tax receipts had caused the agency to take a fuller look at its finances. The agency concluded that its sales tax projections were wildly optimistic.

DART’s revenue problems, the agency concluded, go beyond the recession and are unlikely to improve soon.

For 10 years, sales tax receipts have been essentially flat, Leininger said, and demographic changes in DART’s 13 member cities, especially those in Dallas County, mean sales-tax revenue will probably grow slowly even when the economy recovers.

Dallas County’s population used to be younger, richer and better educated than the national average. By all of those measures, that’s no longer the case, he said.

The new forecasts reduce the agency’s sales tax receipts by $2.7 billion over the next 20 years. But the real impact on DART’s spending will be much higher because those tax receipts would have been used to borrow nearly $4 billion more and to secure about $1.4 billion in anticipated federal grants.

DART will no longer be able to count on any of that money. As a result, it will spend nearly $7.9 billion less by 2030 than the $27.2 billion its 20-year plan calls for now. That’s a reduction of about 29 percent.

That’s a huge amount of infrastructure investment that won’t get made, which will have its own negative effect on the area’s economy and growth. It’s quite the vicious cycle.

You can look at this in a few different ways. You can say “at least we’re better off than they are”, which assuming nothing goes wrong with the FTA is at least true for future construction projects. You can say “that may be us in the future”, which would be a damn shame. Or you can look at it as I do and say “We need to find a better way to fund our infrastructure needs, because they’re not going away”. Frankly, I’d like to see the federal government allocate more money to transit, and to make the process for getting that money more like the process for getting highway money. That’s beyond DART’s scope, but I feel confident they won’t be the only transit agency doing this sort of thing if we continue with business as usual. Oh, and for those of you who sneer at rail transit, remember that TxDOT is broke, too, and for the same basic reason – the funding mechanism we have in place for it is inadequate for its needs. We can’t fix either of these problems until we admit there is a problem that needs to be fixed.

D Magazine on John Carona

Interesting profile, worth a read, on State Sen. John Carona, who’s become somewhat of a radical in his party for actually being old-fashioned enough to try to solve problems and make government work. I think he’s right about this:

With their mantra of no new taxes, the Republican-controlled Legislature does not have the money to build more roads. Suburban Republican representatives, whose communities are threatened with traffic strangulation, find themselves caught in a vise of their own making. The only solution they have is to outsource road building to private companies, which then make their investments back with tolls. Meanwhile, by 2012, when it runs out of cash, the state’s road-building agency, TxDOT, will sit idle. As Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst noted recently, TxDOT is one of the world’s largest engineering firms, with 12,199 employees, 1,120 of which are licensed professional engineers.

Does it make sense to outsource when TxDOT has the capability—but not the money—to meet the state’s exploding need for better transportation? Carona thinks outsourcing is financially reckless. “It costs the taxpayers 3.5 times more to outsource than to build,” he says, “because, unlike the state, private toll-road developers use equity from firms like Goldman Sachs, which command double-digit annual returns to their investors, and they require multiyear exclusive agreements so that out-year profits go to the private consortium rather than back to the state or its taxpayers.” He lays the blame squarely at the feet of his own colleagues. “Fiscal responsibility means nothing to them,” he says with disgust. “They only worry about the next primary.”

He goes further: “Republican office-holders once cared about the nation’s interests. Now they only care about self-interest and special interests.”

Carona figures that the cost of bringing the road system back into balance with a healthy combination of free and toll roads is a roughly 10-cents-per-gallon tax increase. The average driver might pay an additional $8 per month. By contrast, continuing to outsource road construction over the next decade could wind up costing North Texans $8 per day in unavoidable tolls. In July 2008, the average price for a gallon of regular gas in Dallas was $3.98. In January of this year, it was $2.61. Industry experts are predicting that the average price will rise back to $3.25 by this summer, due to a number of factors such as lower refinery production and investors buying oil as a hedge against inflation. And, of course, there’s always the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would cause oil prices to soar. In the rough-and-tumble world of international oil markets, a 10-cent gas tax in Texas barely registers.

I’ve done toll road math many times in this space, so you know I agree with this. The choice here is really simple, and I think it will be a much easier sell than many of our current officeholders seem to believe. Roads don’t magically build themselves. The money has to come from somewhere. Increasing the gas tax will cost you a lot less than paying a toll. Any politician who can’t explain this to people really ought to consider another line of work. Obviously, one may believe there’s a better solution, and if you do then more power to you, as long as you’re honest about it. But if all you’ve got is reflex and fear, then please do us a favor and get the hell out of the way.

Where I disagree with Carona, and I daresay with D Magazine and its traditionally conservative viewpoint, is here:

Money is John Carona’s favorite subject, and how Republicans have handled it since their takeover of state government has left him deeply disillusioned. From the post-Civil War period until the rise of George W. Bush, the Republican Party was seen as the party of business and the economy. It stood for prosperity, balanced budgets, and fiscal responsibility. No more. Says Carona: “The Democrats are the party of overspending. The Republicans are also the party of overspending. The only difference is that the Republicans are hypocrites about it.”

Texas today, after 15 years under two Republican governors, is facing a $21 billion deficit in the next biennium (if sales tax collections continue to worsen, the hole could grow deeper). After applying $9 billion from the Rainy Day Fund (which the deficit will entirely wipe out), the state will be $12 billion in the hole. Deficits are the single most regular feature of Republican fiscal management. Last year, the state was saved from a $12 billion deficit only because of a grant from the federal stimulus package, which almost all state Republican politicians say—in public—they opposed. (In private, they nearly fainted with relief.)

The hypocrisy part, I agree with. But the problem right now isn’t overspending, it’s undertaxing. That ginormous 33% property tax cut, which the business margins tax hasn’t come close to offsetting, blew a huge hole in the budget. In the 2007 session, $14 billion was appropriated for public schools to make up for money lost to them by the property tax cut. About $8 billion of that was to be made up by the margins tax and the increased cigarette tax, though we knew from the beginning that the margins tax would fall short of projections. In the end, the gap was about $8 billion, or almost $2 billion more than originally expected. How much less dire would our situation look right now if we had all that money back, because we didn’t cut property taxes that much and/or because we created a better business margins tax?

We can go the 2003 route and take a chainsaw to the budget again, screwing the poor, the sick, the young, and the old as we did before, but the structural deficit will still be there, even if a return to economic growth papers it over a bit. Just as the 1991-era gas tax is insufficient to provide for the state’s 2010 transportation needs, the state’s tax system overall is insufficient to cope with our growing and increasingly needy population. We’re not going anywhere till we get our hands around that.

The vehicle miles tax

For all the talk about the need to raise the gas tax in Texas to meet our transportation needs, there is another possible way to do it, which is now under study: The vehicle miles tax.

The Texas Transportation Commission has directed a fresh study of the idea, and it is not alone. There are pilot projects in other states and nationally to gauge how such a tax would work.

Texas transportation officials say the study is meant to help give lawmakers information on options ahead of their next regular session in 2011, when they confront a funding squeeze that is expected to drain the highway fund of money for new construction contracts by 2012.

“We need to think differently about how we fund transportation,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said at a Texas Taxpayers and Research Association forum in November.

Delisi said the vehicle-miles-traveled tax idea is controversial, but should be discussed because revenue from the state’s main source of transportation funding, the motor fuels tax, is declining. The gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991.

I first heard of this concept back in 2004, and am willing to see what the Texas Transportation Institute’s study will have to say. What’s not clear to me is why this might be any less contentious than a straightforward increase and indexing of the gas tax. I get the technical idea, but I don’t quite get the politics.

Just how a vehicle-miles-traveled tax would be assessed is part of the study. It could be as simple as drivers writing a check when they have their vehicles inspected or could involve in-car technology to more precisely track mileage, perhaps tacking on a charge when drivers fuel up by communicating with the gas pump.

The latter would allow for such things as different charges for rural versus urban driving, and for deductions when people travel out of state, noted Ginger Goodin, the Texas Transportation Institute research engineer leading the study. She said, however, that privacy concerns quickly arise when such technology is discussed.

Again, I’m willing to see what they come up with, but I think we can all see the argument that will be used against “in-car technology to more precisely track mileage”, and it won’t be pretty. Who will be willing to stand up to that, and will they be more willing to fight for that instead of a gas tax increase? That’s the question. EoW and Come and Take It have more.

KBH’s transportation plan

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day seems like an odd time to be rolling out policy initiatives, especially in a campaign that’s been going on for months, so I’ll be brief with this.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on Tuesday offered a sweeping plan to overhaul transportation planning in Texas if she is elected governor, but she stopped short of saying how she would pay for it.

Hutchison has cast the final killing off of Gov. Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor and the restructuring of his state transportation commission as one of the cornerstones of her campaign to oust him in the March Republican primary.

[…]

The senator proposed a major restructuring of how transportation planning is done in Texas, but she said as governor she would propose a select committee on transportation funding. That pushes the major question of how to pay for new roads off until after the election, although Hutchison said she would not support any funding mechanism that is not approved by voters as a local option.

There’s a time for studies and committees and whatnot, and there’s a time to recognize that we already know what we need to do, and that promises to create select committees are just a way to avoid acknowledging that reality.

While [State Sen. John] Carona and other transportation leaders in the Legislature have called for higher gas taxes, she instead said she’d appoint a task force to study how efficient TxDOT uses the money it already gets, and then to evaluate whether news funds are needed.

Carona called that “a very conservative approach and a starting point for discussion of the issues.”

But he said no amount of efficiencies likely to be found in studying TxDOT’s operations will provide the money Texas needs to keep traffic moving in its busiest cities or to keep its massive network of highways and bridges in good repair. “I can’t speak to what her intentions would be post campaign, should she be elected. But it’s clear that the time for studying is past us now. I applaud her desire to look at the efficiency — that’s a job that is never done — but efficiency alone won’t solve this problem. It’s a first step, but by itself it will be no where close to enough.”

Yeah, well, nobody ever won a Republican primary by promising to raise a tax. I must concede that if she did come out in support of Carona’s position, she’d surely be attacked by Rick Perry for it, even though he himself has not ruled out a gas tax increase. No one ever said this would be easy. Anyway, you can read her full plan here or here if you want. Burka, Hank Gilbert, Come and Take It, and the Trib have more.

Raising the gas tax

This is long overdue.

Members of the Texas Senate’s Transportation Committee said Tuesday that an increase in the 20-cents-per-gallon state fuel tax may be necessary to overcome a drastic shortage of money for new roads.

“We are in the critical position in this state where we are growing and will need more roads. But we have no money to build them and no more debt that we can issue,” the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said during a meeting in El Paso.

“The fuel tax has been the same since 1991, and that’s frankly one of the best solutions to the funding shortage we have in our hands.”

[…]

“For 20 years, the fuel tax has been the same no matter what. The state is not making a killing on the higher gas prices,” said [State Rep. Joe] Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. “No matter how much each gallon costs, we still get just 20 cents. That’s why things need to change.”

Pickett said bipartisan support exists for the tax increase, and that could make a campaign to pass it in the Legislature smoother.

I’ve talked about this a lot before, and it’s really simple. If we want TxDOT to be able to meet the state’s transportation needs – building new roads, maintaining existing ones, and now doing some non-road things like high-speed rail, it needs to have a funding source that keeps up with inflation and the growth of the state’s population. A tax that hasn’t increased in 18 years isn’t cutting it, and a statewide network of private toll roads was a lousy alternate solution that has finally died a justifiable death. This is what’s left. I will have a lot more faith in that “bipartisan support” that Pickett speaks of if we have a different Governor in office the next time the Lege meets – Hank Gilbert has explicitly called for a gas tax increase plus an indexing of the tax to inflation to cover our transportation needs, while Tom Schieffer and even KBH would be better on the issue than Rick Perry. It’s a simple choice – do we want to pay for the things we need or not? – but getting there isn’t nearly so simple. Click on for a statement from Hank Gilbert that shows some of that bipartisan support we can hope is still there in fourteen months’ time.

(more…)

Senate passes TxDOT sunset bill, red light cameras not dead yet

The Senate approved its version of HB300, the TxDOT sunset bill, and as expected it has some major differences from the House version.

Plans to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects in North Texas progressed Monday night as the Senate approved a massive transportation bill that gives counties authority to ask voters to endorse higher gas taxes or other fees.

The bill, approved 22-9, would also end the state’s authority to create privately operated and financed toll roads, though that provision could easily be changed, or even eliminated, before the bill becomes law.

A version of the bill passed this month by the House does not include the tax proposal, a fact that could spell trouble for the entire bill. The House bill would impose far more changes on the Texas Department of Transportation. The chambers will have to negotiate a compromise on the bill.

An amendment to kill red-light cameras in Texas also passed 16-15, but was later withdrawn after two senators changed their minds. The House had already voted to kill the cameras, which several Dallas-area cities use.

Matt Stiles blogged Monday morning about a possible option to let those caught by red light cameras take a defensive driving course to get out of paying the fine. It’s unclear to me if this provision is in the Senate version of the bill. The close vote on the cameras, and the fact that a couple of Senators changed their minds, suggests the possibility that the ban could be added back into the conference committee version of the bill. For now, though, they live.

The local tax provision would let counties in Texas’ five largest metropolitan areas call tax elections as soon as 2010. Voters would be asked to approve a range of new fees and taxes, possibly including a 10-cent per gallon fuel tax increase.

Peggy Fikac notes that this also includes the possibility of up to a $60 increase for vehicle registration fees and up to a $24 increase for driver licenses’ fees that could be used for transportation projects. All would have to be approved by voters.

Dallas-area planners have said their first priority for the new funds, which could total $500 million or more per year, will be to expand suburban rail lines, though legal hurdles to using all of the new funds for that purpose must still be cleared.

Sure would be nice to have some funds like that available for commuter rail here, wouldn’t it? I have a hard time seeing any ballot-proposition tax or fee increases to fund that getting passed, unfortunately.

In the Senate version of the bill, the Texas Department of Transportation would retain its current governance structure – comprising five commissioners appointed by the governor – and its authority to have the biggest say over which roads will be built and when.

The Senate bill would reduce transportation commissioners’ terms from six years to two, however.

So no elections for TxDOT commissioners. I know there were logistical issues with that, and that rural counties likely would have gotten the short end of the stick, but I still think it was a worthwhile idea to explore. Maybe some other time. For now, the next step is the real sausage-making, also known as the conference committee. They’ll need to hurry, and Lord knows nothing can go wrong when that happens. Keep an eye on this one. Postcards has more.

Taking taxation aversion to its logical extreme

This story just boggles my mind.

Think traffic congestion is bad now? Wait until 2012.

That’s when Texas’ highway fund — which relies on a motor fuels tax that hasn’t been raised since 1991 — will be out of money for new construction contracts, according to state senators and transportation officials urging action now on new funding options.

“The course we’re on will result in no new roads in Texas in the very near future,” Sen. John Carona, Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee chairman, said Wednesday.

To try to address the problem, the Texas Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval 23-8 to a bill by Carona, R-Dallas, to allow local-option elections in regions around the state to raise fees or taxes for local projects.

The bill in question is SB855.

While lawmakers consider the issue, Texas Transportation Commission member Ned Holmes of Houston said the state motor fuels tax has dipped even as the population increased.

Not only will funding for new construction contracts be gone in 2012, money for maintenance of existing roads will be insufficient, leaders said.

“There will be no new capacity money after about 2012,” Holmes said. “None. … So we have this growing population, we have an increasing average mile per gallon in the fleet (motor vehicles) and we have a fixed gasoline tax. There is no way that we can fund the needs that we have with this formula.”

The state also gets federal money and uses bonds to fund roads, but several senators said continued reliance on debt isn’t sustainable.

The 20-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax that fuels the highway fund, meanwhile, hasn’t been raised since 1991, and there appears little appetite to do so this session.

I can understand to some extent the reluctance to raise the gas tax, or ideally to index it to inflation. I think it’s lousy that that’s off the table, but it is the political reality, and it’s why we wind up with crazy privatized toll road schemes and convoluted local option bills like this one. It’s very basic – we need new roads, we need to maintain and improve the roads we already have, and we need to find the money to do these things, because the revenue source we have, which we refuse to enhance, is inadequate. It doesn’t get more basic than this.

And yet the idea that the government may need more money to do something as basic and necessary as build and maintain roads is enough to get the usual crowd of taxophobes into a lather.

Opponents included Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who voiced concern that county officials would have the opportunity “to tax their citizens and tax their citizens and tax their citizens.”

GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who will have the opportunity to sign or veto the bill if it passes the House, is committed to working with Carona on transit issues but “has strong concerns about the host of significant tax increases,” said his spokeswoman, Allison Castle.

Hold that thought for a second while we read more about those diabolical tax increases here:

The bill, which will need a state constitutional amendment as well to go into effect, would allow county commissioners in the Metroplex, Central Texas, Bexar County and a few other spots to call elections asking voters for permission to raise one or more of six fees or taxes. This includes up to a 10-cent-a-gallon local gasoline tax.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation and some other conservatives oppose the bill. Although it doesn’t raise taxes, instead allowing others (well, voters really) to make that decision, an aspiring politician could argue in a future Republican primary that the Legislature was part of a multi-part scheme to raise taxes. Convoluted perhaps, but enough to have spooked Dewhurst and some other Republicans.

Okay, so before some dastardly county official gets to tax, tax, tax his citizens, first the citizens of Texas must vote to approve a constitutional amendment, which had to be approved by a two-thirds majority in each chamber. Once all that is done, the citizens who are going to be taxed, taxed, taxed would then have to vote in a special election to impose those new taxes, taxes, taxes on themselves. How much more public input is needed here?

The mindset just confounds me. I mean, either you think there’s no legitimate way to impose a tax, or you think there’s some magic alternate way to fund this need that somehow won’t be borne by the citizens. I suppose you could favor toll roads for all new construction, financed by bonds to be paid off by toll revenues, but what about existing roads? Do the Dan Patricks and the Rick Perrys have an alternate plan, or do they think none is necessary because it’ll all take care of itself? Burka and Eye on Williamson have more.

UPDATE: You may have noticed that Harris County is not part of SB855, which is a curious omission. Burka notes the reason for that:

What [Harris County officials] didn’t want was to give Senator Dan Patrick a platform for opposing the bill on the Senate floor. So the decision was made that the Houston region will be included when the bill reaches the House floor, by an amendment, probably authored by Wayne Smith.

Just call him Sen. Dan “Needs to be worked around, not worked with” Patrick. Really says a lot, doesn’t it?

Morrison speaks on the Grand Parkway

Fort Bend County Commissioner Richard Morrison writes about the recently-greenlighted Grand Parkway Segment E and the possibility that stimulus funds could be used to fund what will become a toll road.

If Segment E is funded from the stimulus money and finally constructed, exorbitant tolls from this segment will be used to finance and construct the remaining segments in Liberty, Montgomery, Brazoria, Chambers, and Galveston Counties. That means the citizens of Fort Bend County and North-west Harris County will be paying for those segments even though they never drive on them. From a mobility standpoint many of these remaining segments are useless. Miles and miles of the remaining pieces will cross open prairie where no one lives, will have little or no effect on traffic and are not needed. When our transportation dollars from Washington D.C. are desperately needed to get people to and from our population centers, it only seems reasonable that the federal stimulus money should be spent on actual mobility projects.

There’s more, so check it out. On a related note, the Observer has a report from that rally at the Capitol that urged TxDOT to slow down and get more public input on how and where it should be allocating those funds. And quit pissing everybody off while they’re at it.