WEEK IN REVIEW
(AUSTIN) — Texas could soon have no money to build new roads if the Legislature doesn't take action to find new sources of funding, according to warnings from members of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. Committee members gathered Wednesday to highlight the risk they believe the state transportation system faces. "The course we're on will result in no new roads in Texas in the very near future," said Committee Chairman John Carona of Dallas. He and his colleagues fear that state money for new roads could dry up as early as 2012.
The problem, according to committee Vice-Chair Kirk Watson of Austin, has three main causes. The first is the fact that the state gas tax, which is a major source of new transportation dollars, has not been raised since 1991, in spite of rising construction and maintenance costs. The second cause is diversion from the state's highway fund to pay for other state programs. The final cause, said Watson, is too much debt. "We are literally papering over the problem of not having sufficient funds by resorting to borrowed money and soon that’s going to catch up with us," he said. "Frankly, it's just not sustainable and it leaves our future at risk."
A Texas Department of Transportation study during the interim looked at the potential shortfall of transportation funding in Texas through the next decades. The balance of Fund 6, the state highway funding source, has decreased from $3.74 billion in 2004 down to $2.5 billion today. By 2012, that number is projected to drop to about $1.7 billion. "The money in the system is just enough to maintain what we have," said committee member Senator Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso. "If we don’t provide the revenue options in this session, we will head in that direction by 2012."Annualized though 2030, that leaves Texas with about an $8 billion annual shortfall in transportation funding.
Later Wednesday, the Senate gave tentative approval to one plan that Sen. Carona believes will alleviate the strain on state transportation funding. SB 855, by Carona, would create local options to fund local transportation projects without turning to toll roads or new debt. The bill would permit a local government body to hold an election, at which voters could decide to raise or create certain fees to pay for transportation projects, from new highways to commuter rail, in the region. These fees include small increases to the gas tax, increasing vehicle registration fees or fees on emissions. During the election, the ballots must list each proposed project the fee increases will pay for, how much the project costs and when it will be completed, as well as when fee increases will expire. A final vote on the measure is expected Tuesday.
Also Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill intended to continue improving air quality in Texas. While bill author Senator Kip Averitt of Waco says the state has made "almost miraculous" progress in cleaning up the state's air, more can be done. His bill would bring together four agencies closely related to air quality control in Texas, the state comptroller, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Public Utilities Commission and the Railroad Commission. These agencies would collectively develop strategies to decrease emissions in Texas. The bill would also create a number of incentive programs to encourage the purchase or development of greener technologies, from plug-in hybrid vehicles to more efficient appliances and equipment for businesses. An important component of the bill, said Averitt, is a measure that directs representatives of the four agencies to be active participants in federal negotiations relating to greenhouse emissions. "If and when the feds decide to adopt climate change related regulations," he said, "we want to be in a proactive position, because we have more to lose in that situation than any other state in the Union." The bill now heads to the House for further consideration.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, April 14 at 11 a.m.