"Both Perry and (Lt. Gov. David) Dewhurst have seceded from reality and they're doing nothing to fix the problem."
State could look at fuel tax hike
By Gustavo Reveles Acosta
El Paso Times
EL PASO -- State legislators on Monday began what will be a long and difficult process to create new revenue streams for highway construction in Texas.
Money to relieve the congested freeways in the state has dried up and lawmakers have been left with the task of coming up with billions of dollars to relieve traffic tie-ups.
The members of the Texas House and Senate transportation committee had a joint meeting in Austin to discuss how the state will come up with additional revenue to help build new roads starting in 2012.
Both committees heard from mayors -- including El Paso Mayor John Cook -- transportation officials, lobbyists and business leaders during a meeting that began at 7 a.m. El Paso time and lasted until well past 4 p.m.
Although no official plan was discussed, most of the conversation revolved around a proposed hike in the state's fuel tax, which has been stagnant at 20 cents per gallon since 1991.
"Yes, that's on everyone's mind, but the reality is that it won't be easy to sell a gas tax increase to the public," said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, the chairman of the House's transportation committee. "Just think about the sound bite on television. As soon as you hear increase, your mind is going to be turned off by it."
Pickett's committee, along with its counterpart in the Senate, began pitching a hike -- or at least a retooling -- of the fuel tax since last fall.
According to figures from the Texas Department of Transportation, thestate could be $250 billion behind in highway construction by 2050, when the population of the state will reach 50 million.
"By January 2012, TxDOT will be dead-flat broke and without new revenues to build new roads. That's a big issue," said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, a member of the Senate's transportation committee.
Shapleigh said the state should not only increase the fuel tax but also alter it to make sure fuel-efficient vehicles pay their fair share in taxes for new highways.
Gov. Rick Perry, though, has said he will veto any bill that asks for an increase in fuel tax.
"Both Perry and (Lt. Gov. David) Dewhurst have seceded from reality and they're doing nothing to fix the problem," Shapleigh said.
Members of both committees conceded Monday that fixing TxDOT's budget shortfall would require innovative legislation and changes to long-standing fee structures.
Some of the proposed changes include increasing vehicle registration fees, pushing cities and counties to use the Transportation Increment Refinancing Zone funding mechanism, and forcing TxDOT to become more efficient.
Officials also discussed creating a local option that would allow municipalities and counties to create local fuel taxes to help build local roads.
Legislators said the state needs to be more in tune with the U.S. Department of Transportation to secure as much federal funding as possible.
"Whatever happens, I hope all these tools that have been discussed are kept on the toolshed for us to use," said Cook. "El Paso has taken advantage of many of these tools and we are doing well because of it."
Many El Paso commuters, though, said they wouldn't like to see an increase in fuel taxes, especially because gas prices have skyrocketed in the last five years.
"Look at me. I'm almost paying $3 a gallon here. And now they want me to pay more? That's awful," said Susan Robert, who was fueling her car at a Central convenience store on Monday. "I think we have enough roads for right now. Don't raise my taxes."
Pickett said he is concerned that the recent boom in highway construction -- about $1 billion worth has been approved -- in El Paso could make people think TxDOT is in good shape and that a fuel tax increase is not needed.
"El Paso is in good shape for the next four or five years, and I say that with hesitation because I know that we have done things right here and things have played in our favor," he said. "But we are talking about the future and our list of projects is long."
Pickett added, "Finding a solution to the transportation funding problem is going to be one of the most difficult things to get through the Legislature in the next session ... but I guess I already knew that."
Gustavo Reveles Acosta may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6133.
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