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Texas Voters to Decide on Taking a Step Forward for Road Construction

Texas is an economic engine unlike any other, but there are things that could put the brakes on our dynamic growth.  Congested highways and the unreasonably long commutes that go along with them have the potential to slow commerce in a way that promises to be detrimental to the Texas economic experience.  With over 1,000 people moving here each day, we’re told to expect as many as 18 million additional vehicles on our roads by the year 2040.  That’s 45 million cars and trucks.

When Governor Rick Perry first took over the central office at the Texas Capitol in 2000, the state had zero debt for roads.  One of Perry's enduring legacies – for better or worse – is that he embraced government debt to finance construction of highways.  Now the credit card is maxed out, and voters across the ideological spectrum are opposed to more toll roads.  Facing that reality, lawmakers are asking voters to approve a first step toward a “pay as you go” system of tackling traffic.

Proposition 1, on the ballot November 4, would divert some of the money that currently goes into the state's Rainy Day Fund – or Economic Stabilization Fund – and dedicate it for road construction and maintenance.  This is being done through a constitutional amendment so it’s a little complicated.  Lawmakers had to pass it last year as a bill and send it to voters to decide its ultimate fate.  When they passed it in 2013, the estimate was that $1 billion in additional road funding per year would be made available through Prop 1.  But booming oil and gas receipts, which feed the Rainy Day Fund, have driven up that estimate to an additional $1.7 billion per year if voters say “yes” to the measure. 

Make no mistake: Much more will need to be done and voters should not get the false impression that if they approve this, traffic problems in Texas will be solved.  It is only a first step.  According to the pro-Prop 1 website Move Texas Forward:

“The constitutional amendment would provide significant progress in addressing the state’s unmet transportation needs by providing $1.7 billion in the first year alone.  However, this amendment alone does not ‘solve’ Texas’ transportation funding challenge.  Experts say Texas has at least $5 billion in unmet transportation needs each year.”

That $5 billion per year would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to maintain current congestion on the state's highways.  Estimates are that an additional $8 billion per year is needed to improve traffic times on roads around the state.

Gary Scharrer, Communications Director at the Associated General Contractors of Texas, said the trade group estimates right now there are nearly 150,000 highway construction-related jobs in the state.  “If Prop 1 fails, we project a loss of approximately 68,000 jobs between 2014 and 2016 – by which time we will have run out of road bond money,” Scharrer said.  “If Prop 1 passes, we project restoring/adding approximately 39,000 highway construction-related jobs.”  He noted that AGC expects there to be a net loss of 29,000 highway construction-related jobs even if Prop 1 passes.

In reluctantly urging Texans to approve Proposition 1, the Houston Chronicle pointed out that the situation we're in has been caused by constantly kicking the can down the road – and there’s blame to go around:

“...we haven't raised the gas tax since the first legislative session of the late Governor Ann Richards.  That was in 1991, when we still adhered to a pay-as-you-go approach to highway funding.  Not only has inflation eaten away at the tax’s purchasing power, but today's more fuel-efficient cars and trucks now consume less fuel to pay for the roads they use.  Wait, indeed.  We haven't raised the gas tax or transportation-related fees because the state has been in thrall the past couple of decades to a gang of anti-government, anti-tax ideologues who don't believe in paying for the people's needs.  Any GOP lawmaker who dares suggest such a common-sense solution knows that he or she would be ‘primaried.’  And Democrats don't have the votes to do what's right.”

The Dallas Morning News was more enthusiastic

“Texas voters have only one statewide ballot proposition to decide in November, and this one’s an easy call.  Proposition 1 would yield billions for Texas roadways without raising taxes a penny.  The proposal would tap the spiking tax collections on oil and gas production and use a portion for highways.  It wouldn’t solve the road-funding problem, but it would put a dent in it.

“Voters can support this constitutional amendment with no qualms.”

There has been very little vocal opposition to the road funding proposal, but history tells us voters will often say “no” to something if they don't understand it.  Business groups are doing their best to get out the word about what this measure will do.  Some folks will no doubt feel like holding their noses while voting yes, and others may excitedly do anything to try to improve traffic.  Whatever your reason is for taking this step forward, it is worth taking because Texas cannot afford to go back.


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