The sixth annual Texas Transportation Forum concludes today in Austin. It was the largest yet, with contractors, state officials and others meeting to talk mobility in the state — and the added challenges they'll face this year to keep Texas moving.
Over lunch at the forum, about 1,500 participants talked transportation on Tuesday. The big question? Money — and where Texas can find it to create stable funding for transportation projects.
"You know the gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1991 in Texas," said Thomas Bohuslav, a transportation construction consultant who attended the forum. "And the cost has almost doubled to build highways since then. And so you’re not really raising taxes, you’ve been losing ground in regards to taxes."
Audio: Mose Buchele's story for KUT News
Add to that the huge budget deficit the state is anticipating, and Bohuslav expects lawmakers to look at raising the gas tax this legislative session. How far they get with that will depend on legislators like state Rep.-elect Paul Workman, R-Austin, one of the many freshman Republicans elected in November who gave the Texas GOP a supermajority in the state House. Many of those freshmen share Workman's views toward a possible gas tax hike: “Right now, with the economy the way it is, no tax increases," Workman said.
And even as a gas tax hike is debated, many on both sides agree that it’s becoming a bad way to fund transportation construction.
"The long-term solution is that we’ve got to identify a more reliable mechanism to fund the needs of transportation," said Amadeo Saenz Jr., executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation. Saenz said greater fuel efficiency, increases in the cost of gas and the rise of the electric car will spell an eventual end to the use of the gas tax, so his department asked the Texas Transportation Institute, or TTI, to look at what might be down the road for road funding. One idea is a vehicle mile-travel fee.
"So you pay based on the miles that you drive," Saenz said. "We right now have TTI looking at what the major issues that would have to be looked at should someone want to go in that direction."
Other ideas thrown about at this week’s forum: an end to the practice of diverting gas tax revenue to fund non-transportation projects, and a hike in vehicle registration fees — ideas that will likely surface again as the Legislature convenes next week.