March 20, 2005
Toll roads and taxing for roads

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels editorializes in favor of indexing the state's gasoline tax to inflation.

Highway safety and the delays caused by urban roadway congestion have reached crisis proportions in Texas, largely because of a lack of funding available to invest in transportation infrastructure improvements. In fact, the Texas Legislature allocates only $2.9 billion, or 46 percent of annual state highway user fee and tax revenue, to fund transportation; it allocates the remaining $3.5 billion, or 54 percent, to fund general government and education services. Without this diversion of transportation resources, funding would be available to make needed infrastructure improvements.

I find Eckels' numbers to be interesting. I noted in an earlier post an article which stated that the gas tax would raise $3 billion and that 75% of that would go to transportation per the dictates of the state Constitution. Maybe Eckels is throwing in federal money, or maybe he's citing biennium numbers, I don't know, but I would like to know where he got his figures from.

In 2003, for example, the Texas Department of Transportation spent $4.7 billion in highway funds. Only 15 percent of that was allocated for new capacity in urban areas, despite the fact that 90 percent of population growth is in urban areas. We need an economically sound, business approach to bringing more transportation funds to Houston, where they rightfully belong.

More numbers. I can only presume TxDOT has other funding mechanisms than the Lege (bonds?), since $4.7 billion is considerably more than what they were apparently allocated.

I also find it interesting that Eckels notes the disparity in rural versus urban new capacity, given his support for the Trans-Texas Corridor, which will for the most part bypass urban areas. It's true that the TTC would help turn US59 into I-69, but 59 already has a lot of capacity on it, much of which was recently added, and the main bottleneck that remains is undergoing construction now. My point is that supporting the TTC and wanting more roads built in cities are not necessarily compatible.

Eckels' piece is also a bit ironic, in that the main reason stated for the TTC has been an insufficiency of state highway funding. If the grand vision is the privately-funded Corridor, then what's the purpose of the indexed gas tax? And if we need to raise the gas tax, then how much do we need to raise it to in order to pay for what we need? Those questions aren't answered.

All that said, I've expressed support for this idea before. Kevin does not.

While we agree with Judge Eckels that the gas tax should only be used to fund transportation, we're a little shocked that a notable conservative would urge passage of a taxing mechanism by which taxpayers are forced to hand over more and more of their money without politicians ever having to take a tough vote. Certainly, it makes life easier for politicians who want more money to spend on pet projects, but politicians who call themselves conservatives (like Eckels) and say they favor limited government should be focused on making it harder for politicians to spend the earnings of taxpayers, not easier.

We can understand that Eckels would like Harris County to receive more funding for road construction. So would we. But we don't support mechanisms that transfer ever increasing amounts of money to the state (whether by property tax appraisal creep or "indexing" of the gas tax) without a vote by our elected officials. Those decisions ought to be hard for elected officials, and the fact it is hard is reflected by the fact that while Eckels laments that the gas tax hasn't kept pace with inflation, he is unwilling to state in his column how much more Texans would be paying for each gallon of gasoline if the scheme he's advocating had been in place since 1991.

That's certainly a fair criticism. I suspect that one reason Eckels (and Governor Perry and Speaker Craddick) have signed on to this idea is because having spent so much time telling everyone that their taxes are too high, they don't think they can reverse course even in a limited instance and even for something (better roads) which their base generally supports. You reap what you sow.

Meanwhile, I'm pleased to see that Eckels and his cohorts on the Harris County Toll Road Authority are catching more flak for their imperious ways.

The toll road authority is a massive operation, generating $298 million in tolls last year, but critics say plans to build more roads could destroy their neighborhoods.

The Fort Bend County toll road project will eventually extend to the corner of the 610 Loop in southwest Houston. Residents there are very upset.

"To bring this through our neighborhoods without letting us know, we had no way of knowing this," said resident Christine Levin.

Levin says the toll road construction is going to eat up local communities.

"Westbury, Willow Bend, Willow Meadows, Meyerland, and ultimately West U and Bellaire," said Levin.

These toll roads in the Houston area are either under construction, or will be built or converted. That includes the 290-Hempstead toll road, the conversion of Highway 249, and the end of the Fort Bend County toll road.

"We feel that a city like Houston should have a say about toll road projects happening within their city limits," said Polly Ledvina with the Citizens' Transportation Coalition.

Ledvina says the toll road authority has too much eminent domain power, and is making decisions without public input.

"The public needs to know that right now, that Harris County Toll Road Authority can build a toll road without even telling them," said Ledvina. "No public meetings are required."

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels says, "We cannot have an eminent domain proceeding without having a public meeting first."

Eckels goes on to say the public has a chance to give input on these toll roads at the county commissioners' meeting every two weeks.

However, Houston City Councilman Mark Goldberg says the toll road authority won't even deal with the city of Houston.

"It's very scary because they don't even have to coordinate with us," he said. "They've even refused to meet with us for a public meeting, and said basically they don't have to, and they're not going to."

State Representative Martha Wong has filed two bills addressing the toll road authority's jurisdiction. One would mandate public hearings for a proposed toll road conversion.

"The toll road authority needs to give the public more information before they build a toll road. In some instances, the toll roads threaten to go right through neighborhoods," said Wong.

Amen to all of that, and kudos to Wong for finally doing something other than name streets after Ronald Reagan. Anne has more on this.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 20, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

Perhaps I missed something, but isn't the gas tax already tied to inflation in the sense that it is a percentage of an underyling good used in pricing the current rate of inflation?

Posted by: B. K. Oxley (binkley) on March 20, 2005 1:12 PM

I figured it out. The gas tax is *not* a percentage of the price of fuel, but a flat amount assessed on top of the price of fuel.

Posted by: B. K. Oxley (binkley) on March 21, 2005 8:24 AM

The emerging markets and their demand for fuel will curtail the number of vehicles on the road by reducing supply and increasing the retail cost. An increase of how much won't be determined by a price level but by reduction in demand. Add to that a fuel tax increase and a need for new roads due to the high price of fuel will be significantly curtailed: possibly even to the point that the increase in tax per gallon will not even match old revenue estimates and maintenance needs, let alone provide additional funds for growth.

Eckels brings up the argument about population growth as an index for state revenue for road funds every election cycle. Eckels needs to quit blaming the state for his problems, quit using new taxing schemes as a crutch and start managing growth.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on March 21, 2005 12:53 PM

While we agree with Judge Eckels that the gas tax should only be used to fund transportation, we're a little shocked that a notable conservative would urge passage of a taxing mechanism by which taxpayers are forced to hand over more and more of their money without politicians ever having to take a tough vote.

As I understand it, the proposal is to index the tax to inflation. If so, it would not be "a taxing mechanism by which taxpayers are forced to hand over more and more of their money without politicians ever having to take a tough vote." It would eliminate a mechanism by which taxpayers are allowed to hand over less and less of their money without politicians ever having to take even an easy vote to cut taxes.

Thus, I don't think the above quote is "a fair criticism" at all. It's just a typical example of the anti-tax crowd using nominal dollars vs. real dollars when doing so results in a "spin" more to their liking.

Posted by: Mathwiz on March 25, 2005 2:31 PM