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Speakers say Texas needs to raise more funding for highways

Posted Thursday, Dec. 06, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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Reducing Texas' reliance on debt and tolls to build roads may be a way to sell state lawmakers on an increase in the gas tax or vehicle registration fees, a panel of experts told North Texas leaders Wednesday.

Steve Stagner, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies, noted that when the Texas Legislature convenes in January there will be 44 new members -- including many fresh faces elected on a Tea Party mandate of reducing government's role.

But, Stagner told members of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition that many of those new lawmakers don't like toll roads, and oppose the state entering into partnerships with private developers to pay for roads.

"They're skeptical of government, but at the same time they're unhappy with the level of debt that has financed most of our [highway] program over the last decade and would happily go back to a pay-as-you-go program," Stagner told the group during a monthly meeting in downtown Fort Worth.

One idea could be persuading lawmakers to draw up a constitutional amendment, subject to voter approval, that would raise motor fuels taxes or vehicle registration fees that includes the caveat that all the money would go toward transportation funding -- unlike the current funding, in which large chunks of cash are diverted for education, public safety and other programs.

"We think the move back to a pay-as-you-go system, with a sense to people that the money raised will actually go to the problem, is something they will support," Stagner said.

Another speaker, Lawrence Olsen, executive vice president of Texas Good Roads and Transportation Association, said he didn't think lawmakers would be willing to raise the gas tax during the 2013 session.

The state's motor fuels tax -- 20 cents per gallon for gasoline -- hasn't been raised since 1991.

But Olsen said he does think state leaders are receptive to finding new funding methods for transportation projects.

Texas Good Roads, a group of business leaders and others who support increasing funding for transportation projects, is making its pitch in an online video, "The Wake Up Call," which can be viewed on the YouTube website and at infrastructuretexas.org.

It illustrates the cost of congestion to Texans in everyday terms, showing that gridlock adds 15 cents to the cost of a gallon of milk, and $343 annually in vehicle repairs, wasted fuel and worn tires.

The message to new lawmakers is "they're paying right now for underinvestment," Olsen said.

"We have 44 new faces, including 41 who have never served before and 23 from the sophomore class," Olsen said.

"So there is a large area of education that needs to be done, especially in Tarrant County, where you've got seven [new House members]. It's going to be a tall order."

The education process includes explaining to new legislators just what the funding need is through 2030, said David Cain, a former state lawmaker who lobbies on behalf of businesses.

For example, one message that should resonate with new lawmakers is that the state is $170 billion short in meeting its transportation needs for the next quarter-century, based on population and job growth projections.

That estimate comes from a 2030 Committee that included respected business leaders assembled by Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Transportation Commission.

But that message is hard to sell when motorists see so many projects under construction -- projects such as North Tarrant Express and Chisholm Trail Parkway in Tarrant County. But those projects are funded by private investment, and toll-backed debt.

"The transportation crisis is not only looming," Cain said. "It is upon us."

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, a founding member of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, agreed that even in conservative communities voters can be persuaded to spend public dollars on transportation projects.

"If you tell them what you're going to spend the money for, they'll do it," Whitley said, reminding coalition members that Tarrant County voters in 2006 approved a $433 million capital improvement and transportation bond package.

"We listed the projects we were going to do, and they knew exactly what we were doing."

Gordon Dickson,

817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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