For more than a year now, state officials have scared the dickens out of motorists by saying the gas tax would have to go up $1.20 a gallon to build all the roads needed statewide over the next quarter-century.
That would almost triple the 38.4 cents drivers now pay in federal and state fuel taxes. Since that's politically impossible to do, the argument goes, toll roads should be built wherever and whenever feasible.
But now a Texas Transportation Institute study says gas taxes wouldn't have to go up nearly as much.
Just indexing the gas tax to rising construction costs would be enough, the 139-page report says. The extra money could finance bonds through 2030 and pay them all off within five years after that.
Or, to avoid borrowing with bonds, the tax could be increased 12 cents in 2008 and indexed to construction inflation through 2030.
Even if the tax weren't indexed, a flat increase of only 39 cents a gallon would do the same - a far cry from the $1.20 that Texas Department of Transportation officials have maintained would be needed.
Now then. Having the state tax "go up $1.20 a gallon" means the total tax would be $1.58.6 per gallon, which is not "almost triple" the current tax, it's more than triple; in fact, it's more than quadruple. Perhaps the writer meant "go up to $1.20 a gallon", or $1.38.6 overall, as was first bandied about last year. That's still more than triple the current tax level. Either way, reporter Patrick Driscoll should ask Santa for a calculator for Christmas.
I've been banging the drum about toll road math for a long time now, so I'm glad to see the idea has finally taken hold. I suppose with assumptions like these that TxDOT was making, someone official was going to call them on it sooner or later:
The report, done for the Governor's Business Council, differs from TxDOT's assumptions in three key areas, said Michael Stevens, a Houston developer who's a member of both the Business Council and the transportation study commission.
TxDOT failed to account for how much tax revenues would go up over the 25 years from increased driving, he said, and overestimated unfunded needs for state roads by $8 billion.
And, when calculating the funding gap, TxDOT added an estimated $22 billion for local streets in the eight largest cities, though the state has no responsibility for such roads.
The study concluded that a bloated $86 billion in unfunded needs espoused by TxDOT is actually just $56 billion.
"These numbers are pretty tight," Stevens said. "We study it like we study our businesses. Before we published it, because we knew it was so different, we did a large amount of due diligence on it."
Now it's true, as noted later in the article, that indexing could very well raise the gas tax by a lot in the next 20 years, and that it would hit poor people harder. Both of these things can be dealt with, especially if we stick with the true numbers and not science fiction.
Indexing the gas tax likely would mean fewer roads would need to be tolled, said Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, who chairs the House Transportation Committee and co-chairs the legislative study commission.
But a bill he filed last year to index the tax to consumer inflation was killed. He said he'll try again when the Legislature meets in January, and may consider tying the tax to faster-rising construction costs.