Thriving economy, growing population mean our road dollars have to stretch

Posted Monday, Sep. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Texas is adding more than 1,000 people each day. That’s a new Texan every minute-and-a-half attracted to the vitality of our state’s economy and quality of life.

They bring with them hope for a better future, their families and their cars; but unfortunately, they don’t bring roads. Instead, they join the millions of other Texans travelling on our aging transportation system.

To put this into perspective, think of the Texas Department of Transportation the same way you would a fast-growing family that needs to move into a bigger house, but can’t because its paycheck is already stretched to its limits.

In TxDOT’s case, it hasn’t had a raise in two decades. Most of its funding is based on a flat gas tax and vehicle registration fees that have stayed the same for more than 20 years.

In that time, the cost of construction has increased substantially while more fuel-economic cars have slowed the growth of gasoline taxes. Funding for maintaining and adding roads has simply not kept pace with demand.

The Texas A&M Texas Transportation Institute has estimated that TxDOT’s annual funding is $4 billion short of what it needs to meet current needs.

Texans will decide in 2014 whether TxDOT should receive approximately $1.2 billion a year in oil and gas tax revenues to help pay for some much-needed road maintenance and new construction.

But before we get there, a new and growing challenge related to the energy sectors of the state is upon us. The energy sector is a tremendous contributor to the state’s economy in terms of job creation and energy independence, but it has come with an unintended consequence.

Energy-sector trucks are putting enormous strain on roads intended for lighter use. It takes an average of 1,300 trucks to “frack” one well using water and sand. Each of these trucks weighs more than 80,000 pounds and is driving on roads built in the 1950s for farm and ranch equipment, not hundreds of heavy 18-wheelers.

These roads might have had as few as 80 cars a day; today, they see about 1,000 oversized vehicles. With safety being our top priority, we must maintain our roads in accordance to safety standards and traffic needs.

The estimated cost to the state system to repair and maintain these energy roads is more than $1 billion annually. And our one-time allocation for this work is about one-fourth of that amount.

With less money to work with, we have to find resourceful ways to hold our costs down while maintaining safe roads. This is why we have begun to temporarily convert some of the most severely damaged roads to high-end unpaved roads with reduced speed limits.

Eventually, when the vehicle volumes on the energy roads drop back to historic levels and profile, we can repave and widen them, subject to available funding.

All Texans want a great transportation system for our economic viability, for a high quality of life and for safe traveling — but it comes at a cost.

TxDOT will continue to be proactive in listening to Texans and stretching our resources as far as possible to build and maintain great roads while partnering with local communities and following the direction of our legislative leaders.

TxDOT wants to recognize the tremendous work of the Texas legislature in advancing the transportation funding conversation. Leaders including Gov. Rick Perry, Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in passing HB 1 and SJR 1, will give the voters a voice in 2014 for possible additional funding.

This would be a significant down payment for addressing our challenges.

Phil Wilson is the executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation. (512) 305-9501

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