If escaping Texas traffic requires higher taxes, we're stuck

Headline from Thursday's paper: "Speakers say Texas requires additional funds for highways."

First reaction: No surprise.

Second reaction: It's not gonna happen.

Third reaction: Have I become a hard-boiled cynic on the issue of highway funding and dollars for other transportation projects, or have I simply come down from wide-eyed idealism to well-grounded reality?

I'm not sure about the third, but I am dead certain about the first and second.

Texas does need more money for highways and other transportation infrastructure, but the state is not going to get it, at least not in the way these speakers suggest.

They want to increase the state motor fuels tax and/or vehicle registration fees. You'd be right if you're thinking we've been there before -- and not long ago.

The comments came at a Wednesday meeting of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, a group of local elected officials and others who are transportation funding advocates.

The speakers, quoted in Thursday's news story by transportation reporter Gordon Dickson, were Steve Stagner, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies; Lawrence Olsen, executive vice president of the Texas Good Roads and Transportation Association; and David Cain, a lobbyist. Cain served in the Legislature for 26 years.

The makeup of the Texas House and Senate, Stagner said, may have changed enough that when the new legislative session begins Jan. 8 that a majority of legislators could be convinced to return to a pay-as-you-go system of highway funding. That's opposed to the borrowed-money-and-private-toll-roads system popular with lawmakers in recent years.

That would mean raising more revenue through increased taxes and fees. The state motor fuels tax of 20 cents per gallon for gasoline has been held to that level since 1991.

Good luck on getting a legislative sponsor for any increase. You could ask Rep. Vicki Truitt of Keller, who carried legislation in 2009 that would have allowed voters to decide, on a local-option basis, whether to increase gasoline taxes and/or vehicle registration fees to get money for specific transportation projects.

The Star-Telegram Editorial Board wrote favorably about that proposal and supported it throughout the 2009 session. It failed to pass.

And now Truitt, after seven terms, won't be in the House anymore come January. She was bounced out of office in this year's Republican primary. Her opponent, now Rep.-elect Giovanni Capriglioni, was recruited and supported by a well-funded anti-tax group known both as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and as Empower Texans.

Texans for Fiscal Responsibility holds the same threat of election opposition over any legislator who steps out of line with its philosophy. The group presses all lawmakers to sign a pledge to "oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."

Some proponents of increased transportation funding say they hope many of the 44 newly elected legislators in next year's session can be convinced that more revenue is needed.

That's not the problem. It's easy to call attention to current traffic congestion, Texans' time lost while trapped in that congestion and the billions of dollars in unfunded projects meant to relieve traffic tie-ups. It's easy to agree that more money is needed.

The problem is in getting someone to carry a tax-hike bill and in getting legislators to publicly register their votes for it. That's the part I say won't happen.

The example of Vicki Truitt is too fresh, too prominent for any legislator to ignore, even (or maybe especially) the newbies.

No matter how much this state might need the revenue from increased taxes to pay for transportation projects (and a list of other things), Texans have a better chance of escaping traffic congestion by jumping on the backs of flying pigs.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.


Twitter: @mnorman9

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