Friday, August 2, 2013

Texas Road Funding Woes | Casey's Last Word

The Eagle Ford shale gas and oil boom that rims the southern side of San Antonio is making many South Texans into millionaires, and pumping about a billion a year or more into the state’s tax coffers.

But the heavy truck traffic needed to service the wells is destroying state and local roads in counties such as Karnes, LaSalle, DeWitt, McMullen and Live Oak.

So how is the Texas Department of Transportation dealing with those deteriorating and increasingly dangerous roads?

It’s tearing up 83 miles of pavement – so far – and returning them to gravel roads, with speed limits reduced from 55 to 30.

The reason: The state doesn’t have enough money to maintain the roads.

Can you think of a more powerful symbol of dysfunction in our state government?

Texas is responding to the new drilling technology that makes our economy the best in the nation by taking our roads back to the 1930s.

There is no more basic function of government than providing roads. 

Without them there is no commerce, or even society.

Building roads is something we cannot do as individuals.

Nor are we comfortable privatizing their construction. 

Now the governor has called a third special session to deal with the state’s massively underfunded roads.

The Legislature is bickering over whether and how to siphon off money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to provide less than one quarter of the $4 billion additional funding experts say we need just to take care of maintenance and keep up with population growth.

The problem is that the single largest source of highway funding – the gasoline tax – has been frozen at 20 cents per gallon since 1991.

And a nickel goes to fund public schools.

The remaining 15 cents buys little more than half as much construction and maintenance as it did 22 years ago.

What’s more, welcome gains in gasoline mileage mean the average vehicle is traveling more miles on fewer gallons, reducing the state revenues while increasing crowding on our roads and highways.

And with aggressive federal mandates in place, gas mileage is expected to continue to improve.

The second largest source of funding, meanwhile, has been federal grants.

Nobody expects to see those increase in coming years.

No wonder House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio this week called the proposals to fund highways with oil and gas windfall from the Rainy Day Fund “much like using a Band-Aid to cover a pothole.”

“In the end,” he said in a formal statement, “you still have a pothole and you’ve spent a lot of money without solving the fundamental problem.”

He continued: “Legislators know that Texas needs a much more comprehensive approach to funding our growing state’s growing transportation needs, and another 30-day special session will not change that.

Until members are free to consider real options - beyond simply shuffling taxes from one purpose to another - we will not find a responsible solution to this issue.”

What Straus doesn’t say – but is clearly true – is that after 22 years of annual effective funding cuts to our highway fund due to inflation and increased gas mileage – we must find a funding system that grows with the costs of building and maintaining a transportation system for our growing population.

That clearly involves a funding system that, like sales and property taxes, grows with the economy – something the public can understand.

But to Governor Perry that looks like a tax increase – and he has promised to veto any bill that includes it.

Welcome to Texas, land of oil booms and gravel roads.

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