Vol 30, Issue 6 Print Issue

Road Warriors Want Better PR

“Water” and “roads” were the big buzzwords leading up to this legislative session. State leaders from Gov. Rick Perry on down went on record touting the importance of finding funding for water infrastructure and highway projects.

One month in to the session, water is right on track. There is widespread agreement on tapping the Rainy Day Fund to create a revolving fund to implement the state’s water plan.

Meanwhile, transportation advocates are worried that road funding reform remains as stalled as ever. So much so that Texas Future, a transportation-focused group that launched late last year, began airing a TV ad in Austin this week.

“TEXAS BUILDS ROADS BY BORROWING MONEY” the text on the screen reads while an announcer says the same.

In the next shot, “2014” pops up in big, red letters, with “EVERYTHING WILL COME TO A SCREECHING HALT” below it in smaller, black text.

Scared yet?

David Polyansky, a consultant with Texas Future, said the ad is part of the group’s strategy for generating the urgency on the road funding issue that water already has.

“I think most Texans realize there is a water issue,” he said. “It’s been much easier for them to digest and frankly the solutions are much easier to grasp. The transportation issue, fewer people are aware of it.”

While the debate on water is mostly centered on how much to spend, the transportation debate is far more muddled. Most lawmakers agree that more money for roads is needed, but they are far apart on how much is needed, where to get it from or how to spend it.

Part of the problem for transportation advocates is that their crisis point is around the bend, while the recent drought has put the state’s water issues in clear focus.

The Texas Department of Transportation has said it needs $4 billion in extra funding annually to maintain the current level of services. The agency expects its bond funding to mostly run out over the next biennium, leading to a stark drop in highway projects by 2016. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, has described the situation as “a fiscal cliff of highway funding.”

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, have filed bills that would dedicate sales tax revenue from vehicle purchases to the highway fund. Williams has expressed concern that that approach takes money out of the state’s general revenue, which will have to be replaced. He’s called for higher vehicle registration fees as part of a solution that includes tapping the Rainy Day Fund.

Texas Future is pushing for a hybrid approach that incorporates all these ideas and also allows Texans to approve a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that all new transportation revenue goes to transportation projects and nothing else.

With so many proposals competing for attention, it’s possible that nothing could win out.

Polyansky said his group has hopes that its focus on the $13 billion in debt that Texas has accrued to build more highways will get Tea Party-type activists to rally against the status quo.

“We feel that, obviously, you have to have buy-in from the conservative equation of the electorate to get anything done in Austin this session,” he said.