Texas, Fight!!! (over road funding)


Panel discussion with Drew Darby, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Robert Nichols, Joe Pickett, Tommy Williams, moderated by Erica Greider. @ the 2013 annual Texas Tribune Festival on the UT Austin campus. 

There’s nothing Texans enjoy more than a good fight, and there is nothing quite as much fun as watching Texans rassle over how to apportion money for road maintenance, repair, and for new roads. How to fund it? Who should get what?

With 10M annually in the TxDOT budget for roads, Phil Wilson is asking for more money, and I am not one to deny TxDOT what they need to keep us safe on Texas roads. No matter how efficient they become at using resources, there is a desparate need for more money. Not all agree.

The lions share of the money, according to State Senator Robert Nichols, a very reasonable fellow and hardworking chairman of the transportation committee in the Texas Senate, goes to maintenance. Not everyone understands how important this work is for traveler safety.

Planning and  development is done 10 years, 20 years out, by construction planners, and the massive funds must be dedicated for years in advance to keep the system working functionally.

The problem is that Texas has not been adequately funding for maintenance, much less massive growth. This is coming home to roost on Texas legislators, like an angry, sharp-taloned Velociraptor.

It has lived off a diet of city and state bonds, toll-road deals, and federal stimulus funds. But that money is gone, according to various transportation experts, and the billion dollar question is: what funding source comes next?

Meanwhile, we are converting some rural paved roads to gravel. Is the funding situation that urgent, or is that a political ploy to motivate funding?

Since the Texas Governor, Rick Perry, has vowed to veto bills that would transfuse more money into the system, and the Texas Lege session has ended, we are back to the talking stage now, rather than acting.

So we are back to toll deals, “efficiency” schemes like “two wheels on a gravel road,” and the hope that next time the Lege is in session we’ll have a new governor and a legislature with the “political will” to vote for what Texans need: safer roads, funding for transit, improved congestion planning, more and better targeted rail projects, support for multi-modal ideas, and pavement for those gravel roads.

There is a plan afoot — inspired by a earlier bill by Chairman Nichols that was not passed by the Senate – where a committee will decide whether use some banked money to spend down some transportation-related debts or borrowed funding for future construction. As Tommy Williams says —  and he prefaced the remark with an statement, born of exasperation, about trying to satisfy the whims of nabobs this year while at the Lege — “Why leave money in a low-interest savings account when you could pay off a high-interest on a loan?”

A politico from one of Texas’ rural counties made a case for increased state funding for the maintenance of rural roads. With hundreds of drill permits, unheard of sums are being spent by counties just to re-gravel damaged roads. They are asking for more state support for these county-owned roads.

Historically, in Texas rural areas, the primary county roads were converted into highways, and many other roads were also upgraded and brought into the fold of TxDOT funding and maintenance.

The state is benefiting from revenue coming out of drilling, but so are the companies who are doing the drilling. Why don’t those companies pay more for the damages they inflict with oversize, overweight, superheavy trucks used for drilling and shale-related work?

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