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On the road to nowhere

Use your own favorite cliche for this.

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.”


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.”

Naturally, an increase to the gas tax is off the table, because it might actually help solve the problem. And if someone would like to explain to me why issuing bonds like this is not the same as deficit spending, I’m all ears. To be clear, I’m not against spending borrowed money on infrastructure. It’s just that I don’t see why we need to be borrowing money, which will need to be paid back with interest, when we have a less expensive alternative available to us. Clearly, I just don’t get it.

By the way, while it is true that these funds are separate from general revenue and thus not directly related to the budget shortfall, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection. There are no enterprise funds at the state level that don’t get raided for other purposes. The gas tax is also used to fund the Department of Public Safety, and a portion of it is taken off the top for education. There’s been talk for awhile about doing something to stop all these redirections and have the gas tax be used fully for transportation, but doing so would then add to the shortfall. One way or another, it all comes back to a lack of revenue. PDiddie has more.

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One Comment

  1. curioustexan says:

    The Texas Legislature has its head in the sand. Members are more worried about being re-elected than solving problems. Infrastructure is in a horrible mess. Their immediate solution to all issues, is force local governments to foot the bill, then pound their chests shouting “we didn’t raise your taxes”