Sunday, January 30, 2011

Texas state highway fund is broke down on the side of the road

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."

Unfinished roads -- Roads to Nowhere? -- potholes, bridges broken down, then finally toll roads and Lexus lanes... but isn't this what a whole lotta Texans voted for in the last election?

What is everyone so upset about? Besides the ill eagles, as usual?

Remember: this is a financial issue mostly separated from the state's budget shortfall, which is also a crisis ... but not yet one of Rick Perry's emergencies, like voter ID, or sanctuary cities, or mandatory sonograms for women considering their reproductive options.

The transportation funding problem is separate from the state's projected $15 billion to $27 billion budget shortfall. The Texas Department of Transportation does not get any general revenue to build or maintain roads.

Legislative leaders generally agree that hiking the gasoline tax is not a viable option for several reasons, including the no-tax-increase pledge by Gov. Rick Perry and others. But Pickett wants that option on the table.

The proposed budget calls for the state to spend nearly $3 billion a year on road maintenance and nearly $800 million a year to repay debt. Less than $600 million, however, will be available per year for new road construction, which will not buy much pavement.

For example, the U.S. 290 corridor from Loop 610 to FM 2920 in Waller runs 38 miles and will cost $2.4 billion, according to TxDOT officials.

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."

But hey, the Republicans elected in mass majorities just two months ago have a handle on it.

(Williams) agreed that the growing debt is a problem but said it is manageable given the size of the state, likening borrowing money for roads to buying a home with a 30-year mortgage.

A 30-year mortgage? Really, Tommy? In the current real estate market? You didn't sign us up for an ARM, did you?

Williams and Pickett agree that higher vehicle registration fees would help counter the immediate funding pressures. Current vehicle registration fees run about $60 a year in Texas.

Both said there's no benefit in assessing the state's long-term highway needs because that cost is so staggering that "you push the public away," as Pickett put it.

A report two years ago by the Texas Transportation Institute and others indicated the state's highway needs between now and 2030 would cost $488 billion.

Texans now pay 20 cents of state tax on every gallon of gasoline — a nickel of it goes to public education - which costs a person who drives 12,000 miles a year and averages 21 miles per gallon pays $7.14 a month. People who get better mileage spend less, Picket said.

A 5-cent hike in the state gas tax would raise about $575 million for roads and $190 million for schools.

"Is it OK to keep borrowing money, putting it on the credit card and paying high interest - or, should we raise the gas tax?" Pickett said.

Higher fees, more debt, and/or raising taxes are the choices. And "let's have a discussion about it" is what's coming out of the mouths of Republicans in the state legislature. I think I hear a Teapot squealing.

The Republicans have been in charge of Texas for almost 20 years now and this state is in the worst shape it has ever been in its entire history. Prior to 1998 the Democrats had been in control for about a hundred years and not once during the entire time have the state's financial consequences been this dire. Not once.

Rick Perry (and David Dewhurst, and everybody running for Kay Bailey's chair too, for that matter) has gone from boasting about the strength of the Texas economy during the campaign season to blaming all our troubles on Washington -- that is, when he can bring himself to admit we have any troubles at all. It's the same con game as his public persona; the drugstore-cowboy equivalent of bragging about how brave you are because you shot a coyote, even though nobody actually saw you do it and there's no dead coyote to be found.

The fact is that Republicans rule, and Democrats govern. I realize this is difficult to understand, particularly if you have been drinking too much tea for the past year.

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