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Debate continues over funding road projects at local level

Wednesday, January 7, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Lawmakers at a state transportation summit Tuesday were less than enthusiastic about a proposed idea to use local option elections to allow regions to underwrite road projects with their own funding.

For the last three sessions or so, Texas transportation policy has been all about shifting decision-making from the Texas Transportation Commission down to the local level. Regional governments would propose projects. Metropolitan planning organizations would approve projects. And local transportation authorities, like the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, would execute construction and operation of those projects deemed the most important in the region.

But there is a line state lawmakers have drawn in the sand. This session, local lawmakers – even those in Central Texas – have considered proposing local option elections to use indexed gas taxes to pay for additional road construction.

At TxDOT’s Texas Transportation Forum Tuesday, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley raised the issue of local option elections again. Should local areas be given the right to hold elections to request fees or taxes – paid by residents within their jurisdiction – to pay for projects that are not covered in the state’s current funding?

Three lawmakers on a panel Tuesday afternoon said local elections would create unacceptable inequity in funding.

Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso), for instance, said it was important for regions to have a menu of options for funding projects but that, sometimes, the projects truly belonged in the bailiwick of state lawmakers.

“The real challenge is the shortage in revenue in meeting the annual needs of the state between now and 2030,” Shapleigh said. “What is the framework of revenue sources for generating that money? That option will not be met from the menu of revenue options for generating that money.”

The state, not local regions, needs to deal with large unmet needs, Shapleigh said. Lawmakers need to get a plan to the floor that will be the framework for funding future transportation needs, Shapleigh said.

Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) agreed. The former Texas Transportation Commissioner said it was important that major solutions to road problems come from the state level and not from local elections.

“My experience with taxes as a former city mayor is that they’re brought to the voters, and if they vote ‘no’ on it, they’re brought back again, if they vote ‘no’ on it the next year, they’re brought back again, until eventually, one of those years, it passes,” Nichols said. “Then they’re stuck with it.”

A statewide solution to transportation funding, on the other hand, tends to raise all ships. A local solution just tends to raise some ships while leaving others stuck on the bank waiting for some kind of rescue.

Whitley noted that sometimes it’s easier to sell a local option to voters, to simply say that tax revenues raised would not go to the state but to the local project.

Rep. Carl Isett (R-Lubbock) agreed but noted that the state is served with one highway system. He raised the issue of property tax: Just as it is in the education, there are plenty of times that property value raises more tax revenue in one part of the state than it does in other parts of the state.

Hence, it’s difficult to propose that the local tax solution is the solution that fits all areas of the state, Isett said. Isett also opposes the indexing of gas taxes because the rate fluctuates as the price of gas fluctuates, making it undependable.

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