But for a generation, the state has approached old and new transportation challenges in a very different way. We have struggled simply to keep up with our needs. This has left Texas at a critical intersection, and the choices that the Legislature makes over the next several months will determine both how we live in the short term and what opportunities our children will inherit.
Texas now faces a transportation crisis. We spend more and more of our lives in traffic instead of with our families. We seldom, if ever, see major roads built without toll booths. And the rail lines and highway lane miles we know we need are being scaled back or scrapped in the face of a hopeless inability to pay for them.
It is only becoming harder to address these needs. The costs of concrete, steel and other basic road building materials have risen by 60 percent over the last five years. However, the state motor fuels tax – our primary source of transportation funding – has been frozen at 20 cents per gallon since 1991. The disparity has left the state facing 21st Century challenges with a 20th Century tool.
The Texas Lyceum, a group of the state’s top thinkers and policy makers, will focus on this issue at its annual public conference in Houston on Dec. 3 (for more information, see http://www.texaslyceum.org/events_list_con.aspx). And in January, the 81st Texas Legislature will begin weighing opportunities to make a meaningful investment in transportation. Here are alternatives which we believe the state must explore:
End Transportation Funding Diversions: The State Highway Fund has long provided money for the Department of Public Safety and other priorities. We must focus this money on roads and other transportation projects.
Use Bond Funding Transparently: A year ago, Texans voted to dedicate $5 billion in tax-supported bonds to transportation projects. The Legislature should appropriate this money for its intended purpose and commit to using it with complete transparency and accountability.
Support Regional Financing Tools: Other than toll roads and privatization schemes, the state has provided few options for cities, counties and other local jurisdictions to fund transportation. The Legislature should offer new voter-approved funding mechanisms for regions to plan and pay for roads, rail lines, and other projects.
Re-Write the Gas Tax: Texas’ primary source of transportation funding cannot provide for the state’s transportation needs. The Legislature must have a serious debate about restructuring the motor fuels tax to reflect the enormity of our tasks by indexing it to inflation.
Explore New Alternatives: Texas must move past a 20th Century model that relies so heavily on single-occupancy vehicles and work to create a truly comprehensive statewide system for moving people and freight. This should begin by funding the Rail Relocation Fund that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2005.
Reform the Texas Department of Transportation: With its overt advocacy of privatization and occasional disregard for the Legislature, the Department has rightly incurred the wrath of Texans and their representatives. While we applaud the department’s recent efforts to be more transparent and accountable, the Legislature must fundamentally reform the agency so that Texans are fully aware of its activities and never question its objectives.
These changes will not be easy, and they will confound the frequent promises of something-for-nothing. But they are necessary if we are to address the needs we see every day at rush hour – challenges that will only become greater. Our children must not be the first generation of Texans to inherit an inadequate transportation infrastructure with nowhere to grow.
Senators Carona and Watson serve respectively as Chair and Vice Chair of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.