Friday, November 8, 2013

Roads Don't Pay for Themselves | Last Word

This week Texans showed themselves overwhelmingly willing to raid our state’s “Rainy Day Fund” to the tune of $2 billion to slake our thirst.

Two things contributed to the landslide passage of Proposition 6.

First, we need to tap the Rainy Day Fund because it hasn’t rained for years.

At least not enough.

Despite some recent precipitation, we’re still in the nastiest drought since the 1950s.

Second, the Rainy Day Fund, which is filled with the proceeds from taxes on oil and gas production, is booming due to the Eagle Ford and other formerly fallow fields made bountiful by fracking.

Next November, we will be asked to dip into the Rainy Day Fund for another purpose: Roads.

This time it will be for about $1.2 billion a year from the fund as long as the oil and gas boom continues.

We’ll probably pass that measure, too.

But two things should quell any celebration.

One is that, as with water, the amount is well under half the need.

The other is, as all Texans know, the oil boom will sooner or later turn to a bust.

The larger problem with our roads is that while the state has been growing, our major source of funding for our roads – the gasoline tax – has been shrinking.

The tax has been at 20 cents a gallon since 1991.

But according to the Consumer Price Index, what 20 cents bought in 1991 now costs 34 cents.

To put that in road construction terms, a billion bucks then is $1.7 billion bucks now.

The gasoline tax doesn’t collect as much money per car on the road as it did back in 1991 for the simple reason that under government mandates, the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks has improved about 30 percent in that time.

Put those two factors together, and our main source of funding for roads is worth about half today of what it was in 1991. 

Put another way, we taxpayers are ponying up about half today what we did then for our roads.

Over the past few years, the state Department of Transportation has made up for the shortfall by selling about $17 billion in bonds.

The Legislature, which authorized the borrowing, has decided that is enough.

Thus we go to the Rainy Day Fund.

And, of course, to toll roads.

I understand the anger about toll roads, but I think some of it is misplaced.

If we don’t let our elected officials know we are willing to pay taxes for so-called free roads, we shouldn’t complain when they come up with other schemes.

I also think there should be a hierarchy of anger about toll roads.

At the top, would be converting present-day roads into toll roads.

At the mild end of the spectrum should be those roads with free high occupancy lanes for carpoolers and public transit vehicles that charge lone drivers a fee to hop on. 

If you’ve taken I-10 to Houston lately, you’ve seen this scheme, and it isn’t bad.

It relieves congestion on the “free” lanes not only by removing those willing to pay, but also by encouraging efficiency.

One development is that some commuters go to bus park-and-rides, knowing that there’s a good chance a driver will come by and offer a ride so he or she can travel in the fast lane without paying the toll.

The point is, if we’re going to continue to give ourselves a tax break every year by not letting our main transportation tax keep up with inflation and fuel efficiency, we’re going to have to get creative, not just mad.

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