TxDOT says they're running out of money.
State transportation officials cried "uncle" Thursday, saying federal and state lawmakers have raked so much money from the highway department that it's running out of funds to build roads.
Lawmakers had help from rising construction costs, which jumped 62 percent in five years. But federal cutbacks, state diversions of gas-tax funds and new restrictions on hampering private investments in toll roads have delayed projects and could cancel others.
In this fiscal year, the Texas Department of Transportation will delay or scale back $965 million worth of road construction work.
"People need to understand that, within a very short time period, there will be no new capacity added," Texas Transportation Commission member Ned Holmes said.
Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said the agency needs to slim down, maybe enact a hiring freeze and use fewer outside consultants.
"As we ask the citizens of this state to buck up and be prepared, I think we internally need to look at our own house," he said.
TxDOT sounded the warning months ago, starting in the waning days of a legislative battle over Senate Bill 792, which strangled the agency's ability to lease toll projects.
"I'm convinced most (legislators) truly don't understand the long-term impact of tapping on the brakes," Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said. "Logic and civility command that we calmly talk through how we're going to deal with this."
Lawmakers need no lecture on the severity of the state's transportation needs, suggested Steven Polunsky, a top aide to Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.
"We agree absolutely that there is a financial crisis," Mr. Polunksy said. "And Senator Carona will support next session a multi-pronged approach to solve it."
He wants to raise the gas tax and stop the diversion of revenues to pay for other needs, Mr. Polunsky said.
But the private investment deals favored by the commission were too lopsided, he said, noting that some proposed leases would have kept the toll roads in private control for 75 years or longer.
"The price that came with those private financing deals was too steep," Mr. Polunsky said. "Lawmakers found the terms unacceptable, both politically and from a business standpoint."
Mr. Williamson said efforts to raise the gas tax are misplaced. The tax is inefficient because lawmakers divert too much of it to other needs, and he said it is too regressive, since poor people pay the same rate as rich ones.
He did say he would probably support efforts to index the rate to inflation, if only because inflation is making it increasingly difficult for the department to simply maintain the roads it already has.
I'll grant that the Lege failed miserably to act on the gas tax, which is at this point the only responsible alternative to TxDOT's privatization madness. But given Governor Perry's intransigence, that's not too surprising. Vince, EoW, and McBlogger have more.Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 29, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles