The Wheels Come off Transportation Funding

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Joe Straus’ statement on the failure of the House to agree on a solution to the state’s transportation needs is worth posting, because it lays bare the failure of the state’s leaders to address the real problem. What is that problem? It is the same problem that has existed since Rick Perry became governor. In short: a rigid anti-tax ideology that makes it impossible for TxDOT to satisfy the demand for new roads. (We saw this in the regular session, when Drew Darby’s HB 3664, which would have increased vehicle registration fees for the first time since 1985, went down.) We can now expect Perry to call the Legislature back into special session to attempt to secure transportation funding, even though it is clear from outcome of floor debate today that the votes are not available in the House to pass any of the attempted fixes for the lack of funding for transportation.
Straus’ statement follows:

I would like to thank the Members who worked so diligently in an effort to address some of our transportation needs during these two special sessions. As today’s vote shows, Members have become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of diverting and indefinitely dedicating funds away from the Rainy Day Fund to roads.  These funds were never intended to be a stable, long-term way to address our transportation needs.

Diverting a capped amount of money from the Rainy Day fund to repair roads is much like using a Band-Aid to cover a pothole; in the end, you still have a pothole and you’ve spent a lot of money without solving the fundamental problem. Legislators know that Texas needs a much more comprehensive approach to funding our growing state’s growing transportation needs, and another 30-day special session will not change that. Until members are free to consider real options–beyond simply shuffling taxes from one purpose to another–we will not find a responsible solution to this issue.

What are “real options?” The only way the transportation crisis will ever be solved is by identifying a long-term revenue source. That source exists. It is called the gasoline tax. As is well known to any student of Texas government, the gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991. It isn’t a perfect tax, by any means; as cars become more efficient, the gasoline tax produces less revenue per highway mile. Even so, a ten-cent increase in the gasoline tax would allow TxDOT to plan for the state’s future transportation needs, which is more than it can do today. The ruinous alternative is to issue bonds and go into debt, which is exactly what we have been doing. Why this passes muster as “conservative” escapes me, but that’s how we do it, and that’s why our highways resemble parking lots. Or we can go back to building toll roads and trying to convince the public that a toll isn’t a tax. Good luck with that.

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