Understanding transportation funding: We need to open financial doors to access mobility money

roads at night time

Two years ago, the 84th legislature rightfully elevated transportation funding to emergency status, paving the way for Proposition 7. Voters are commuters, and they saw the need to allocate revenue from the state’s general sales and use tax, and motor vehicle sales and rental tax, for non-tolled transportation projects. The constitutional amendment complements Proposition 1 voted in a year prior that conveys a share of oil and natural gas severance taxes to the State Highway Fund each year.

Central Texans seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Transportation finally received the attention it deserved. Everyone relaxed, placing a figurative checkmark next to the transportation funding box.

Everyone except us at the Mobility Authority, and at TxDOT.


A growing population means a growing funding gap

The reality is, the amount due to come from those authorized allocations from Propositions 1 and 7 aren’t enough to cover the estimated $4 billion in improvements to I-35 – improvements that we all know are desperately needed. Meanwhile, 150 people move to Central Texas every day resulting in hundreds of thousands of vehicles winding their way each day through the major arteries throughout the region.

And the gasoline tax has been insufficient for a while, becoming more so as vehicle fuel efficiency has improved.

Fuel efficiency is desirable, but we need to prepare for its impact, and that of other advances such as electric or hybrid vehicles and ridesharing, on our financial ability to build, maintain and improve our transportation infrastructure.


What are our options?

Other than the fuel tax, we haven’t tinkered with tax-based transportation infrastructure funding in years – propositions 1 and 7 simply direct existing tax revenue to the state’s highway fund. And while some seem to find it easy to loathe toll roads, they are user-based options, and do work to improve mobility.

Thankfully, our existing projects at MoPac South and Oak Hill Parkway won’t be affected by recent legislation requiring that TxDOT repay state funds that went toward a toll project. These projects will give Central Texans much-needed relief from some of the area’s most congested roads.

The bill – SB 312 that legislated transportation primarily as amendments tacked onto unrelated legislation — also prohibits converting non-tolled and HOV lanes into toll lanes or frontage roads. And a House bill that failed to pass was one authorizing 18 more tollways through public-private partnerships.

If you use portions of SH 130 to ease your commute, you can thank a public-private partnership. Despite the private sector operator’s bankruptcy reorganization – which it navigated successfully — the road stayed open through the bankruptcy process, and the debt did not revert to the public. In other words, it worked precisely the way a P3 should work, with the private sector bearing the brunt of risk when traffic revenues didn’t meet expectations, absorbing the hit, availing itself of private sector options to restructure, without any harmful consequences to the public.

The problem with removing provocative options like toll roads and P3s that we know work, is that all we have left are even more debated options. There is a growing emphasis internationally on consumption models that might be a harder pill to swallow in the U.S., and in Texas, than a gas tax and tollway.

California, Colorado and Oregon are testing pay-to-drive programs. Oregon’s OReGO signs up drivers who agree to outfit their vehicles with a device that gathers fuel and distance data, charging the users based on how far they drive.

Our mobility reality is that we have to pay for the roads we drive on.


At stake: Your quality of life

Our daily reality is that you are already paying. Maybe not with a GPS system that charges you based on when, how and where you drive, but you are absorbing a cost when mobility barriers drive your decisions. We see these daily constraints as one of the largest threats to Central Texans’ quality of life. It can drive you to living in an area that has fewer essential services important to your family, turn down a job you really want or select a daycare that costs more but is on a less-congested roadway. It can force you to pay a fee for a late-child pickup on more than just the odd occasion. You might be denied a well-deserved raise because employer productivity suffers when employees sit in traffic, negatively impacting your company’s bottom line.

These are all ways we pay financially, without providing a solution to the mobility problem. It removes the control of how we are spending money on mobility, and where.

Personally, we pay through lost time with our family and those important to us.

Life is too short to pay it in pieces to traffic bottlenecks on a daily basis.


Taking control

For the past several months, we’ve been hearing out of Washington that transportation infrastructure is a priority of the Trump administration. But signs of real progress in the foreseeable future appear to be waning.

It’s up to us, Central Texas. We need to sort through our priorities of what enhanced and increased mobility means to us. We need to pressure our lawmakers to once again make mobility an economic and social priority, and treat it like the emergency item it is. We can’t sit back in satisfaction because two measures were passed in the last 24 months that don’t even begin to cover transportation costs, because too many heads are buried in the sand on what the true cost of transportation infrastructure really is.

There’s a reason that President Trump put a $1 trillion price tag on the nation’s transportation infrastructure requirements: It does cost that much. We need to accept that, and stop eliminating viable solutions that can cover the costs of what we need in Central Texas.

Doing that is costing us so, so much more.

2 years ago by in News & Events | You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.