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Home | Tag Archives: texas roads

Tag Archives: texas roads

With Money Tight, Texas Budget Writers Eyeing Billions Approved by Voters for Roads

More than a year after Texas voters approved routing billions in state sales taxes to roads and bridges, some lawmakers are questioning whether the first payment of $5 billion should move forward as planned.

Texans voted in 2015 to boost funding for state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under the state’s growing population. Proposition 7 — loudly cheered by top Texas leaders and supported by 83 percent of voters — changed the state constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But in an unusually tightfisted legislative session, some Texas lawmakers are raising the prospect of reducing that initial cash infusion to free up money for other state programs.

No one has publicly backed such a move, but key budget writers have privately discussed the option. And at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Monday, Sens. Kirk Watson of Austin and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown asked Legislative Budget Board staffers about how it might work.

Lawmakers could reduce the $5 billion transfer by up to 50 percent through a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. That’s through a provision of Senate Joint Resolution 5, the legislation that sent the issue to voters in 2015.

“As we’re thinking through all these budget items, we have a number in our head,” Watson, a Democrat, said when he learned such a maneuver could ultimately free up $2.3 billion in revenue for other purposes. “We purposely put in a fail-safe.”

Schwertner, a Republican, questioned whether the Texas Department of Transportation has already allocated money expected from Proposition 7.

The Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, last year approved a long-range planning document that assumed it would receive Proposition 7 funds through 2026, according to its Unified Transportation Program.

And at the Texas Transportation Forum, an event hosted by TxDOT in Austin this month, Transportation Commission Chairman Tryon Lewis said the agency is already counting on the money in long-range plans. “We’ll be getting the projects out,” he said.

On Monday, Lewis told the Senate Finance Committee that parts of the agency have been reorganized “to make sure money is used immediately.”

Local governments are already submitting proposals to TxDOT for how to tap the Proposition 7 money, Marc Williams, the agency’s deputy executive director, told The Texas Tribune. The Transportation Planning Commission will discuss those and other proposals during a Feb. 22 workshop before voting on them in March.

TxDOT’s main source of revenue — the gas tax drivers pay at the pump — hasn’t seen an increase since 1991, years before the Dallas Cowboys last won a Super Bowl. Twenty-two states in recent years have increased their gas taxes to help pay for transportation projects, according to credit ratings agency Moody’s. Such a move has been largely considered a nonstarter in the tax-averse Texas Legislature.

Meanwhile, as cars become more efficient, most drivers are paying even less in per-mile gas taxes.

On top of that, inflation, increased construction costs and cars becoming more fuel efficient have prompted years of warnings from TxDOT officials that it can’t keep pace with the demand for additional highway capacity needed to keep up with the state’s booming population. In some parts of the state, particularly in North Texas, transportation officials and planners began relying more heavily on tolls to fund new highways or expansions of existing ones. Residents eventually began pushing back against their proliferation.

During the past two legislative sessions, lawmakers came up with a number of mechanisms to send more money to TxDOT that avoided raising taxes, including two constitutional amendments that voters overwhelmingly approved.

Though the Texas Senate and House kicked off this session with proposed budgets that are nearly $8 billion apart, funding for TxDOT was one area where they agreed. Both bodies initially budgeted for TxDOT to receive more than $28.1 billion over the next two years. In each proposed budget, that figure includes $5 billion from Proposition 7’s sales tax revenues.

In a report last week, Moody’s argued that the new TxDOT funding approved by voters in recent years leaves the Legislature with less money to work with than it had in the previous session.

“Simultaneously, economic and population growth is expected to increase faster than the nation,” the report said. “Balancing the government service demands of growth against a smaller general fund budget now is a greater challenge.”

But amid sluggish economic growth in a state with a litany of pricey needs — including widespread concerns about the state’s child welfare system — some lawmakers appear to be lamenting whether too much money has been guaranteed for transportation.

A move to get back some of that money could face major opposition in the Legislature.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, the House sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 5, suggested lawmakers should only use the clawback mechanism in case of a major economic downturn or if the state found itself in some other unforeseen fiscal bind.

“I just don’t think our budget is that dire,” the El Paso Democrat told the Tribune.

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott released his proposed budget to lawmakers that included sending the full Proposition 7 funding amount to TxDOT in the next biennium.

“A promise to invest in infrastructure was made to voters, and this budget ensures the promise is kept,” his budget says.


Mariana Alfaro contributed to this report. 

Texans fear Trump’s Highways Plan will Create more Toll Roads

The president-elect’s proposals to expand and fix up U.S. highways seem to be a recipe for ore toll roads. Texans from both parties hope to change that.

Part of president-elect Donald Trump’s promise to create new jobs for Americans relies on a “deficit-neutral plan” to spend $1 trillion on public works projects, including hundreds of billions for roads and rail.

But the strategy could result in something many Texans aren’t going to like: more toll roads.

“Unfortunately that’s the way I’ve read it,” said state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, vice chair of the Texas Senate transportation committee.

There are also fears the plan could provide few new highway projects or road improvements to the state’s vast rural areas. And the lack of details in the proposal has so far made it unclear how Texas’ urban transit agencies could be affected.

Trump’s plan is already getting some opposition from his own party in Washington, D.C. In the Lone Star State, where residents have balked at a growing number of toll projects, state officials from both political parties are hoping the incoming president backs off reliance on the private sector.

“To be direct, it’s a little scary and kind of contrary to where our current leadership in Texas has been going the last couple of years,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who chairs the Texas House transportation committee.

Under the current proposal, the $1 trillion in infrastructure investment would come not from the government, but from private companies who would receive tax incentives for borrowing funds needed for construction costs, according to Trump’s campaign and transition websites and a paper authored by two of his senior advisors.

The private firms who build the roads, though, would expect a revenue stream to cover principal, interest and operating costs. And the most common way to create a revenue stream on a road is to toll it.

“To suggest public-private partnerships and relying on tolls, we’ve already kind of maxed those out,” Pickett said.

Vocal toll road opponent Terri Hall of San Antonio is the executive director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a group whose members are contacting Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and asking the transition team to rethink the infrastructure plan.

She said the proposal essentially privatizes the nation’s roadways and opens a door to corruption.

“It reeks of cronyism, which Trump’s campaign promise to ‘drain the swamp’ was supposed to get rid of,” she said.

Amid shortfalls, Texas toll roads multiplied

Most transportation funding comes from federal and state gas taxes that drivers pay when they fuel up. But neither the United States or Texas gas tax rates have been increased in more than two decades, creating funding shortfalls that have been exacerbated by inflation and rising construction costs.

To fill the gaps that the gas tax revenues couldn’t cover, Texas for years turned to toll projects to help fund new, widened and rebuilt highways. But there’s been a recent statewide, bipartisan pushback against the proliferation of toll projects.

Texas residents and elected officials have vehemently fought a litany of such projects and have often succeeded in scrapping the tolling components or killing entire roads .

Meanwhile, questions have arisen over how Texas drivers benefited from $1 billion that several local entities spent developing a bevy of toll projects across the state. And the private company that operates a portion of tolled State Highway 130 in Central Texas filed for bankruptcy after lower-than-projected traffic created financial shortfalls.

After the Texas Department of Transportation studied how much it would cost to pay off the debt and remove tolls from roads across the state, lawmakers expressed frustration that the tally exceeded $36.7 billion.

Texas voters twice in the last two years approved constitutional amendments that would send more existing revenues to the state highway fund. Both provisions explicitly forbade the state from spending those dollars on any project that has a tolling component.

TxDOT officials said in a prepared statement that they look forward to working with Trump’s administration on “critical infrastructure issues.”

“As Texas continues to grow as one of the best places to work and live, transportation will remain a priority,” the statement said.

Fatiguing urban regions, bypassing rural areas 

Nowhere in Texas is there more toll fatigue than in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where some affluent suburbs are reached by more toll roads than tax-funded highways. The region is also expected to soon become home to the nation’s largest network of managed toll lanes, which are built alongside rebuilt or expanded tax-supported highway lanes.

But Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments that steers federal funding to projects in the region, said the Trump proposal’s reliance on private money isn’t concerning. Morris said Texas’ urban areas will never have enough public funds to keep up with demand for more roads.

“So, the region has demonstrated for some time the benefits of leveraging transportation projects to develop a solution for providing mobility and a revenue stream to maintain infrastructure over time,” he said.

Others, though, worry that rural areas will be left behind under the current proposal. Geoff Anderson is the president and CEO of urban planning and development nonprofit Smart Growth America. He said that private firms aren’t likely to view improving access to rural areas or rebuilding aging county roads as financially feasible or worthwhile.

“The projects that address those types of issues seldom have a revenue base,” he said.

Huffines, the Senate transportation committee vice chair, echoed Anderson’s concerns. He also said that toll roads in urban areas will geographically segregate people by income because only those Texans that can afford the added cost will live near such corridors.

“Those that can’t are going to live in those areas where they don’t have to go down toll roads,” Huffines said.

Hopes for a change of course

Hall, the toll road opponent, said the proposal would create a regressive cost burden on working class and rural Americans who helped Trump win the election.

“It would likely get him in trouble with a voting bloc very early in his administration,” she said.

Anderson of Smart Growth said the plan should have a better balance between public and private funding. Huffines said a good start would be for the federal government to send back to the Lone Star State all of the federal gas tax revenues that Texas drivers pay, a move he estimates would result in an extra $800 million a year for transportation spending here.

“I would just be tickled pink if we could just get 100 cents on the dollar back,” Huffines said.

Read more Tribune coverage:

Author: BRANDON FORMBY – The Texas Tribune

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