AUSTIN (AP) – Texas lawmakers are concerned that state transportation funding is headed for a crisis as taxpayers face the prospect of paying more for past road construction than to build new highways.
The gasoline tax for road maintenance and construction hasn’t increase in 20 years, and its proceeds have been falling since 2008 because of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Legislative leaders say the situation is complicated by the lack of awareness most Texans have of the problem, the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle reported in their Sunday editions.
“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,”‘ state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, told the newspapers’ Austin bureau. “Yes, it’s a crisis.”
Furthermore, the burgeoning problem is separate from the state’s projected budget shortfall of $15 billion to $27 billion, the newspapers reported.
State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands and chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, states it simply: As of 2012, the state will have no money to build new roads and highways “in the fastest-growing state in the country and in one of the largest states in the country. We need to begin have a discussion about it,” he said.
Furthermore, leaders say increasing the gasoline tax rate was an unrealistic option for several reasons, including Gov. Rick Perry’s no-new-taxes pledge. Pickett wants that option discussed, however.
The state now owes $11.9 billion on bonds the state has taken out for road construction projects since 2003. Pickett said it eventually will cost more than $21 billion to repay those bonds.
A report issued by the Texas Transportation Institute and others two years ago said it would cost the state $488 billion to meet the state’s highway needs from now through 2030. Pickett, however, said there was no benefit to preparing for those long-term needs because that would just “push the public away.”
However, “we are trying to warn people,” he told the newspapers. “‘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.”
The Texas gasoline tax rate is now 20 cents per gallon, from which 5 cents goes to public education. A 5-cent increase would generate about $575 million for roads and $190 million for schools each year.
“Is it OK to keep borrowing money, putting it on the credit card and paying high interest, or should we raise the gas tax?” Picket asked.
One of the Legislature’s most conservative members, state Rep. Leo Berman, said he was ready to at least discuss it.
“We have to balance the budget right now, but we have to build roads as well and we have to look out to the future,” the Tyler Republican told the newspapers.
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