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Senate plan would send nearly $1 billion to roads

 

JIM VERTUNO,Associated Press


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas would divert nearly $1 billion a year from its cash reserves to a fund dedicated to building and maintaining roads under a plan unveiled Wednesday to help ease the strain between the state's growing population and its crumbling infrastructure.

Texas transportation officials have warned state lawmakers they need an extra $4 billion per year for roads. Gov. Rick Perry this week put the issue on the agenda for the special session of the Legislature.

The plan outlined in the Senate Finance Committee wouldn't cover that demand, but would be a big first-step in putting the state on a pay-as-you-go building program instead of amassing billions in debt.

"We are in serious trouble," under a current transportation system that is struggling to keep up with growing demand, said Sen. Robert Nichols, the Jacksonville Republican who authored the spending plan.

The Texas Department of Transportation manages nearly 200 million miles of roads and more than 50,000 bridges. The agency largely relies on a 20-cents-a-gallon fuel tax that hasn't been raised since 1991.

TxDOT estimates drivers cover average 480 million daily vehicle miles on state roads, a number the transportation advocacy group TRIP recently estimated will increase by 35 percent in about 15 years. That group identified Dallas, House and San Antonio as areas facing major congestion problems without improvements.

The plan before the Senate panel would divert an estimated $900 million collected from oil and gas severance taxes that currently go into the state's Rainy Day Fund. That fund is currently flush with cash because of high oil and gas prices and a boom of new wells.

Although lower prices could reduce the flow of money in the future, the industry has proven to be a stable long-term source of revenue for the reserve fund, Nichols said.

Diverting the money from the reserve fund into a roads fund would require voters statewide to approve a constitutional amendment.

Lawmakers have struggled with transportation funding for years and have been reluctant to raises taxes or fees in a Legislature controlled by a Republican majority for a decade. Instead, the state has turned to a system of borrowing that has added billions to the state's long-term debt. Transportation funding ideas that crashed in the regular session included spending sale taxes collected on vehicle purchases for roads and raising driver license renewal fees.

"We've not properly funded transportation in this state for years. In the last decade, we've done it primarily by acquiring debt," said Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler. "We're not going to solve this problem without new revenue, taxes."

The Senate plan, which is likely to be endorsed by the panel and sent to the full Senate on Friday, has run into opponents worried that tying up money from the reserve fund solely for roads would prohibit lawmakers from spending it in other areas, such as public education.

"We may want to consider some dedicated allocation that would help shore up our schools," said Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, suggested the constitutional amendment require a minimum amount be left in reserve fund in case of a major disaster such as a hurricane. Patrick also said he didn't want voters to be fooled into thinking the fund would solve the state's transportation crisis, comparing it to promises made in the 1990s that the state lottery would pump millions of extra money into public education.
 

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