Wear: Texas’ frozen gas tax thawed by Propositions 1 and 7


Highlights

Texas’ 20-cent gas tax now is among the nation’s lowest, but state roads are benefiting from other added taxes.

The city of Austin, looking for a more walkable downtown, this week will convert Colorado to a two-way street.

City transportation officials are redoing dockless bike and scooter rules as an Aug. 1 deadline approaches.

Perhaps Texas’ mummified gas tax can just stay in the crypt.

Periodically through the many years I’ve been on this beat, I’ve written about Texas’ 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax and how it hasn’t been increased by the Texas Legislature since 1991. So has the Statesman’s editorial page.

And the message, either subtle or overt (in the case of the opinion page), was always that lawmakers needed to raise the dang thing.

Because of inflation and better fuel economy, the purchasing power of that revenue source has been falling almost since the day the Legislature hiked it from 15 cents a gallon. Yes, the state’s population has risen through the years, usually causing the revenue raised by the gas tax to creep up 1 or 2 percent. But the cost of building and maintaining highways was usually rising even faster.

Our Legislature and Governor’s Mansion, controlled or occupied by Republicans for the past generation, has never shown any interest in increasing that gas tax, a quarter of which goes to public education under a provision in the Texas Constitution. The Texas gas tax rate, consequently, has fallen steadily when compared with other states’.

For instance, in 2003 (when I became the Statesman’s transportation writer), Texas had the 27th-highest gas tax rate in the country. About in the middle, in other words. And the highest rate at that time was Rhode Island’s 30 cents a gallon.

Now, according to statistics from the American Petroleum Institute, Texas is sitting at 45th for motor fuel taxes. Washington state has the highest stand-alone gas tax, at 49.4 cents a gallon. While Texas has only the gas tax, other states have other means of placing an additional tax on fuel. Pennsylvania now extracts 58.4 cents in taxes from each gallon of gasoline or diesel sold.

We’re way low, in other words.

But that comparison ignores Proposition 1 and Proposition 7. Those state constitutional amendments, passed by voters in 2014 and 2015, now direct revenue from general sales tax and oil and gas severance taxes to the Texas Department of Transportation.

According to the Texas comptroller’s latest estimates, released last week, that 20 cents-a-gallon gas tax will yield $2.74 billion for TxDOT in the 2018-19 fiscal year. That’s about $137 million for each cent of the levy.

Propositions 1 and 7, however, will kick in another $3.87 billion in 2018-19. To get that much money through the gas tax, you’d have to charge another 28 cents a gallon.

So Texas kinda-sorta has a 48 cents-a-gallon gas tax, at least in terms of how much tax money is automatically dedicated to highways. And that doesn’t even taken into account vehicle registration fees, which in 2018-19 will throw another $1.53 billion into TxDOT’s accounts.

Highway advocates, looking at the snarling urban traffic congestion of our ever-growing state, say TxDOT still needs a few more billion a year, especially if future toll roads are taken off the table as an option. How to get that money is a whole other conversation.

But take me off the list of those dismissive of our elfin gas tax rate. Propositions 1 and 7 pretty much erased that talking point.

While I have you …

Two-way on the byways. Say goodbye, as of Thursday evening, to another one-way street in downtown Austin. Most of it, anyway.

Colorado Street, which has been a southbound one-way street for decades, will be converted Wednesday and Thursday to two-way use between West Cesar Chavez Street and West Ninth Street. Yes, that will leave one orphaned one-way block, between West Ninth and West 10th streets.

The governor’s people, we’re told, didn’t want it two-way. That would have provided yet another approach to the Governor’s Mansion for state troopers to scan.

Anyway, Colorado joins a long list of former one-way streets that Austin has bifurcated in the past couple of decades. Others include: West Cesar Chavez, Second, Third and Fourth streets; East Fifth Street for several blocks west of Interstate 35; and, in 2015, Brazos Street from East Cesar Chavez to East Sixth Street.

Austin long ago had made downtown almost completely a one-way grid (Congress and 11th Street being the notable exceptions), a design that made it faster to get around and safer by eliminating most left turns into oncoming traffic. But an emerging city philosophy of making downtown more pedestrian-friendly took hold about 20 years ago.

The Downtown Austin Plan approved by the council in 2011 made this explicit.

“Wide one-way streets encourage faster-moving traffic that undermines the pedestrian environment and the potential for active pedestrian uses along the frontage,” the report said, going on to contemplate further conversions to two-way traffic on almost all north-south and east-west streets. It recommended retaining one-way traffic only on Guadalupe, Lavaca, Fifth and Sixth streets as “couplets.”

One of those couples, obviously, has already gone splitsville.

Dockless, and still lockless. Some of you may recall that when the city in late April put out “emergency” rules for dockless bikes and scooters, those regs included an Aug. 1 deadline for the companies involved to install “lock-to” devices on their vehicles. Alternatively, the rules said, the companies could employ “haptic technology” that would discourage or prevent improper parking of the bikes and scooters, that being mostly in the middle of sidewalks where people are trying to walk.

Well, with about two weeks to go, only Pace and Jump bikes have locks — not so with Ofo, Lime and Bird — and no one appears on the way to going all haptic and stuff. But the companies have other concerns about the initial rules and have been letting the Austin Transportation Department know about them.

READ: The Austin scooter invasion of 2018.

The locking requirement, Lime said in a letter to the city, has the downside of encouraging the new dockless vehicles to take over space on existing bike racks, potentially leaving private bike owners scratching for places to lock their vehicles. And requiring the locks, Lime said, would be “potentially fatal” to its business model by creating a “supply chain issue” (meaning it would have to retool its operation to buy and install the locks) and decreasing use by making it more of a hassle for customers to begin and end a scooter rental.

The city, we’re told, is nearing completion of an updated set of rules. We’ll let you know when those are done and shared with the media.



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