Tom Warne Report, 8 April 2013
A top priority for this legislative session was supposed to be transitioning the Texas Department of Transportation from years of relying on debt and find a sustainable, substantial source of funding for road work. TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson said he needs $4 billion more per year, plus $1.6 billion for oil country roads under duress from heavy trucks. Gov. Rick Perry has called for pulling $3.7 billion from the state’s $12 billion rainy day fund to go toward water and transportation projects.As the session reaches its final two months, the majority of bills proposed to raise cash have not even gotten a hearing. “It’ll be tough,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, a member of the House Transportation Committee and of a small ad hoc group under House Speaker Joe Straus to find a solution. “It’s awfully late in the session.”
Over the past decade, TxDOT has been going through a growth spurt, with the agency’s budget nearly doubling to more than $20 billion proposed for 2014-15. The building boom has been largely paid for by three debt programs approved by the Legislature, toll roads and outsourcing to private companies. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols estimates that the total debt has reached $23 billion.
At least two dozen bills have been filed to bring in more money, including dedicating the state sales tax on vehicles, tires and auto parts to the highway fund, hiking registration fees, repealing the constitutional amendment that sends 25 percent of gas tax money to K-12 education, and stopping the “diversion” of up to $1.5 billion annually in gas taxes from transportation to other state needs. Transportation lobbyists say the latter is a big priority.