Update, Wednesday, 3:05 p.m.:
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, says the TRIP report is not a revelation, citing similar studies by the Texas Department of Transportation and other organizations. "They still don't address the main issue," Pickett said, "and that's how we're going to pay for it." Pickett says that the lack of public awareness and an unwillingness to take some politically unpopular actions are the main reasons for funding shortfalls.
"The average Texan is paying $3 less a year in gas tax than they were in 1991," he says, noting that few politicians would want to raise the tax when gas prices are so high. Pickett says he doesn't expect the upcoming Legislature to solve the problem. "The Legislature is going to continue to kick the can down the road on this."
Issues including traffic congestion, damage to vehicles from roads needing repair and costs incurred in accidents caused by insufficient safety features on roadways cost drivers in Texas $23 billion annually, according to a study released Tuesday by a national transportation research group.
“Texas has fallen behind in relieving traffic congestion on its major roadways and maintaining pavement conditions on these roads,” said Frank Moretti, director of Policy and Research at TRIP, the group that conducted the study.
The study suggests the condition of Texas roads could be costing individual motorists as much as $2,000 a year.
It also says the condition of Texas roads will worsen without increased funding, a difficult prospect given the state's budget challenges. Pavement quality, for instance, is projected to decrease 30 percent statewide over the next decade given current funding. A recent study conducted by Texas A&M University and cited in the TRIP study suggests traffic congestion, which can cost motorists as much as 38 hours a year in urban areas, is likely to double statewide in the next decade.
Moretti said much of the increased use of Texas roadways is business-related.
“The tremendous energy boom being experienced in Texas, while great for the state, is putting a great amount of strain on Texas roadways.” According to TRIP’s study, addressing this increasing use will cost $2 billion annually.
Calls to the office of state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, were not immediately returned.
Lawrence Olsen, executive vice president of Texas Good Roads, an advocacy group that wasn't affiliated with the TRIP study, said the costs of improving roadways are just the tip of the iceberg. Olsen warned of a “looming fiscal cliff” coming for statewide transportation projects. According to Olsen, many of these are funded by bond proceeds or other short-term funding sources. “Very few of these projects are funded out of pure highway funds,” which Olsen said are not adequate at current levels to maintain road quality, let alone to take on new projects.
Olsen noted that major revenue sources for the highway fund haven’t been update to reflect increased road usage. Olsen cited the vehicle registration fee, which was last increased in 1985, and the motor fuels tax, which was saw its last bump in 1991.
In a statement released Tuesday, the Texas Association of Business said it would push for a $50 increase in the fee motorists pay to register a vehicle in Texas during the upcoming legislative session. It suggests the revenues raised by this increase could be leveraged to raise $16 billion in bonds for road improvements.
“While no one likes the idea of higher fees,” TAB CEO Bill Hammond said in the statement, “if you look at the TRIP study the cost of doing nothing is far higher. We see the registration fee increase as the only real alternative right now.”
Whether from increased fees or other sources, Moretti suggests the need for increased funding is very real. “It's not fiscally responsible to let the backbone of your economy fall apart,” he said.