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Agenda Texas: Another Chance for Transportation?

On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: Thwarted attempts at boosting the Texas Department of Transportation's budget could get another shot in the special session.

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We all know of the traffic and road condition problems across Texas — from monster traffic jams in our cities to disintegrating rural roads in heavy oil and gas production areas.

Heading into this year's legislative session, the Texas Department of Transportation reported just how much more money it needed just to keep things from getting worse.

“TxDOT was very clear that we needed an addition $4 billion per year — $1 billion for maintenance and $3 billion for new construction — just to maintain the current level of congestion," said Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business.

The companies Hammond represents hoped the session would bring some relief so that employees could continue to get to work and goods and services could be delivered in a timely manner. But that didn't happen.

“Given the scope of the need, the results of the legislative session were pretty disappointing," Hammond said.

Of the $4 billion TxDOT said it needed, it got $400 million. Another $450 million was thrown in to rebuild those rural roads being pounded by oil and gas production. That’s actually only about a quarter of what TxDOT requested for road repair. So what happened?

"Sometimes legislators are better at solving crises or perceived crises, and so we may not have sold the crisis soon enough in the process," said state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Branch said roads are obviously important but that the session started with water at the top of a long to-do list. Other lawmakers echoed that sentiment, saying water was always going to come first. And since it took up until the final days of the session to pass a water plan, there was no time to work on transportation.

But another big question when it comes to transportation funding is just how to pay for it all. And there’s not a clear answer.

“If we’re not going to raise taxes or fees on fuel tax or vehicle registration fees, if that’s off the table, and if we cannot go into general revenue, and that’s off the table, and we don’t want to go into the Rainy Day Fund and take any money out of it, what is left?" said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Nichols said that a couple of weeks ago he finally struck on an idea that just might work. He has filed Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would divert at least a billion dollars a year that would have gone into the state’s Rainy Day Fund to pay for roads. Nichols knows it’s not the $4 billion needed, but he said it's a start.

“It doesn’t get you everywhere you need to go; it’s not a perfect solution," Jackson said. "But it’s part of a good solution, and so it gets up part of the way there."

Similarly, filing the bill only gets up part of the way to a debate on transportation funding: In a special session, lawmakers can only debate items the governor puts on the agenda.

For now, redistricting is the only item. But the Hammond is optimistic.

“The fact that they didn’t get to this important priority would hopefully give credence to the fact that he will at some point include it in the call and the legislators will have an chance to address this issue," Hammond said.

How would you pay for transportation in Texas? Drop us a line at AgendaTexas@kut.org or on Twitter @AgendaTexas.

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