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Texas Roads Paved With Taxes, Tolls and Debt

Voters want better roads. Lawmakers want happy voters. Roads require taxes, tolls, debt or some combination of the three, which is why conservative officeholders are using those three dirty words.

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Voters want things. And politicians — officeholders, especially — are responsive to voters.

Cranky people stuck in traffic are not happy people, and they pass their unhappiness along to those who represent them. Those same voters, in many cases, have already expressed unhappiness to those responsive and able officeholders about some other things, too — things that, in politics, might get somebody’s mouth washed out with soap: taxes, debt and tolls.

No need to start a pity party, but you can at least see the quandary for some lawmakers — especially the professional revenue haters. Their voters want roads (and education, water and many other things) and don’t want the prices to go up. Politicians who promised to solve the road problem and promised not to raise taxes find themselves in a pickle. They were listening. They were responsive. Now they’re stuck.

That illuminates the path that led several conservative Republicans to start talking out loud, using some or all of those three dirty words.

State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, has talked about raising the fees for car and truck registrations in the state.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, was on the Texas Department of Transportation board before he ran for office. He has proposed redirecting the sales taxes on cars and trucks from the state’s general accounts to the state’s transportation accounts.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, suggested raising the sales tax for long enough to pay off the state’s $17.9 billion in authorized transportation debt and then lowering it.

This has been building for a while; a few years ago, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, proposed local option gasoline taxes — always with voter approval — to pay for local road projects.

Texans are so frustrated about transportation that it has become safe to talk about taxes.

Debt is a bigger problem. Toll roads and debt have financed transportation in Texas for the last decade. The budget and planning folks say they don’t have enough borrowing capacity left to keep up.

Though there is talk of taxes, there are very few signs that anyone wants to actually raise them, even for roads. Tolls, at the moment, are the easiest way to pay for roads with a minimum amount of political risk.

Transportation, like water and other infrastructure issues, is a big numbers game. Williams, steeped in the state budget, said Texas is spending less than $3 billion annually on roads; it had been spending about $4 billion annually. That wasn’t enough, either — it would cost around $8 billion a year, he said, to maintain the state’s current level of road congestion.

Got that? Double or triple current spending to keep the average traffic jam from getting worse.

Some of the state’s most Republican communities are in suburban counties. Not everybody on that interstate parking lot is a Republican, but there are enough Republicans on the road to have a political impact.

It would take $12 billion in annual spending, Williams said — and he is echoing highway officials here — to significantly lower congestion on the state’s busiest highways.

He and others are looking for long-term solutions. The gasoline tax is increasingly unreliable. Cars are more efficient and don’t use as much gas. The tax is not indexed — it remains the same no matter how high or low the price of gas goes. And a quarter of the money raised goes to schools, and not to roads.

The state’s highway fund is not just for concrete and guardrails, but for keeping those roads well policed. The budget writers are trying to replace highway money going to the Department of Public Safety with general funds, so the highway money is used for highways.

Williams is starting up a panel of senators to look at the state’s debts to see how much money could be saved by refinancing, because interest rates are so low. It turns out the state has a limit on debt service instead of debt. Lowering the overall cost of the debt increases borrowing capacity.

That helps, marginally. Legislators might take $2 billion this session from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to kick-start water projects needed during the current record drought. Water is the infrastructure problem of the day.

Transportation might be stuck in that traffic.

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State government Transportation Texas Department Of Transportation Texas Legislature