I was startled to hear last week on NPR that it had been a decade since the Interstate 35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, killing 13 and injuring 145. Tempus does fugit, does it not?
That report, which took a national perspective and found too many bridges still in poor shape all these years later, also touched on how so many states have been increasing gas taxes in recent years to try to address road and bridge needs. Which, of course, got me to wondering about how Texas stacks up, both on bridges and the gas tax.
First, the gas tax. Texas legislators have not chosen to increase the state’s gas tax since 1991. That means that mostly famous Texans such as Jordan Spieth, Demi Lovato and Shane Buechele have never lived in a world where the Texas gas tax wasn’t 20 cents a gallon.
Texas House members Will Metcalf of Conroe and Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, both Republicans born in 1984, were still learning to count to 20 when the gas tax was last changed. Now they could help change it.
Not going to happen, of course, despite at least 17 states and the District of Columbia having raised their gas taxes since 2013. Texas will not be following. Few things have been more certain in state politics, other than the R next to every statewide officeholder’s name, for the past generation.
Texas, which used to be solidly in the middle of U.S. states on its gas tax, is now heading to the bottom. Or the top, depending on how you look at it.
Forty-two states now have a higher state gas tax than Texas, with Pennsylvania at the top with a levy of 58.2 cents per gallon. Alaska, which depends heavily on oil and gas revenue, has the lowest tax: 12.25 cents a gallon. The median rate among the 50 states and D.C. is Minnesota’s 28.6 cents a gallon, and the average is 29 cents a gallon.
Meanwhile, despite Texas’ huge population growth over the past decade, state gas tax revenue has gone up just 15.1 percent since the 2007 fiscal year, from $3.05 billion to $3.51 billion. Adjust that for inflation, and the value of what the state brings in from the tax has been essentially flat, even as the state’s need for transportation has exploded.
That’s why we have so many toll roads now, to meet that need, and also why the Legislature in 2013 and 2015 (backed up by public votes thereafter) voted to redirect some existing taxes (not the gas tax) to the Texas Department of Transportation. No new revenue there, just shuffled deck chairs fiscally.
But Texas bridges, despite the functionally flat gas tax revenue for most of the past decade, have done pretty well.
According to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, put out by the American Society of Civil Engineers, 9.1 percent of the almost 615,000 bridges in the United States were rated “structurally deficient.” That ranking doesn’t mean those bridges are necessarily unsafe to drive on or about to fall down — although the Minnesota bridge that collapsed did have that designation — but that they fail to meet a standard and should be repaired or replaced.
That figure has been improving nationally: In 2007, 12.3 percent of U.S. bridges were structurally deficient.
Texas has been ahead of the curve throughout the past decade, ranking second-best currently by percentage of structurally deficient bridges in that engineer society report, with 1.7 percent. In the worst state, Rhode Island, almost a quarter of the bridges were rated structurally deficient in 2016.
And a recent TxDOT report says the situation with Texas’ 53,500 bridges is even better than the national study would indicate. Because traffic varies from bridge to bridge, and the newer bridges (including freeway flyovers) tend to get much heavier traffic, just 0.5 percent of daily traffic in Texas drives on a structurally deficient bridge.
The TxDOT report says the number of Texas bridges with that rating has declined from 2,152 in 2006 to 856 as of last September. Of those, 133 are recommended for closure, but 115 are so-called “off-system” bridges belonging to cities, counties or private owners rather being part of TxDOT’s state system of roads.
The department budgeted almost $200 million in 2016 specifically for replacing bridges, part of an ongoing commitment of dollars for that purpose.
In the 11-county Austin district of TxDOT, nine “on-system” bridges are structurally deficient, including two in Travis County and one each in Williamson and Bastrop counties, according to the 2016 TxDOT report. Hays County had none with that rating.
But Diann Hodges, a spokeswoman for TxDOT’s Austin district, said three of those bridges have been replaced, two are closed to traffic (on I-35 at East 51st Street) and three have a problem with frequent flooding rather than having structural problems. Only one bridge, on FM 112 in Williamson County, has genuine structural defects, Hodges said in an email.
At least one problem bridge locally from 2007, when that Minnesota tragedy occurred, is no longer a problem. At the time, TxDOT acknowledged that the FM 973 bridge over the Colorado River near Hornsby Bend was structurally deficient and had worrisome cracking in its undergirding.
A wider bridge was built and opened several months ago.
As for that gas tax thing and the Legislature, well, there’s no bridge strong enough for that one.