This was going to be the session when legislators began weaning the Texas Department of Transportation off its decade-long reliance on debt and found a substantial and sustainable source of money to build and repair roads.
Gov. Rick Perry called for taking $3.7 billion from the state’s $12 billion rainy day fund and putting it into water and transportation projects — he didn’t say how much for each. Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Phil Wilson said that, to do the job right, he needs an additional $4 billion a year and $1.6 billion for oil country roads under stress from heavy trucks in the current shale oil boom.
But with the session in its final two months, few if any of a raft of bills introduced to come up with cash have moved out of committee, and most haven’t even gotten a hearing. Lawmakers and transportation lobbyists say the push for road money now is surviving mostly on hope.
“It’ll be tough,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, a member of the House Transportation Committee and of a small ad hoc group deputized by House Speaker Joe Straus to work out a solution. “It’s awfully late in the session.”
Although gas tax revenue has failed to keep pace with either inflation or the state’s explosive growth since the early 1990s, TxDOT has been in a building boom over the past 10 years, its budget roughly doubling to the more than $20 billion proposed for 2014-15.
But that surge was largely funded by three debt programs authorized by the Legislature, by toll roads with still more debt tied to them and by outsourcing some projects to private companies that then pocket most of the toll revenue. The total debt, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said Tuesday, has reached $23 billion.
Much of the state’s 20-cent-a-gallon gas tax is used to maintain the state’s 80,000-mile highway system, and most of the rest of the budget — supported by federal gas tax grants and other fee revenue — is devoted to paying off debt and paying contractors on construction already in progress. Without new funding, TxDOT leaders say, the agency will be unable to schedule additional construction projects after 2015.
There has been no shortage of ideas for ginning up more money. Among at least two dozen bills filed, the proposals include dedicating the state’s sales tax on vehicles, tires and automotive parts to the highway fund; using rainy day money to create a revolving transportation fund; increasing the state’s vehicle registration fee; repealing the constitutional requirement that 25 percent of gas tax money go to K-12 education; and stopping the “diversion” of as much as $1.5 billion a year in gas taxes to state needs other than transportation.
That last one is a particular priority, lobbyists said, of the amorphous but large tea party contingent in the House. Don’t talk about raising revenue, their litany goes, until properly directing that revenue to TxDOT. Doing so would require filling in that $1.5 billion hole in the state’s general fund to keep paying for the Texas Department of Public Safety and its troopers.
That borrowing from Peter to pay Paul approach has reportedly stymied Nichols’ Senate Bill 287. As originally written, it would have gradually moved from the general fund to TxDOT the approximately $3.3 billion a year generated by sales taxes on motor vehicle sales.
But some critics call that shift a diversion as well, taking money from other legitimate state needs such as public education. Nichols, who first suggested the idea in 2010, finally got a hearing on the bill Tuesday before a Senate subcommittee on fiscal matters. Given the opposition, Nichols introduced an amended version keeping $2.5 billion in the general fund going forward, moving to transportation only the money above that level.
“It assures you don’t create a hole any deeper than $2.5 billion” in the general fund, Nichols told the committee. “I have watched the Legislature struggle for 16 years with this issue. …We need to do something.”
The subcommittee left Nichols’ bill pending.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to correct that TXDoT's 2014-15 budget is likely to be above $20 billion dollars.
Raising road money
Some of the proposals before the Legislature:
- Take up to $1.7 billion from the state rainy day fund and create a “transportation infrastructure fund.”
- Shift some of the $3.3 billion-a-year vehicle sales tax from the state’s general fund to highway spending.
- Increase the annual vehicle registration fee by as much as $60.
- Reallocate all or much of $1.5 billion in gas tax revenue from the Texas Department of Public Safety and other state needs to TxDOT.
- End, with voter approval, the allocation of 25 percent of gas tax revenue to K-12 education.