Pave-As-You-Go Highway Plan Austin PEOPLE WERE BEGINNING to speculate in the late 1970s that Texas had finally come upon a way to put a lid on highway spending. Nobody thought the highway lobby had been tamed, and it wasn’t that there was a sudden consensus that we had paved over quite enough of Texas, thanks. What happened was that we had developed “revenue shortfalls!” For the first time since the 1940s, there wasn’t enough money for the highway department to spend at will high and low, east and west, four-lane, six-lane, eight-lane, in the manner to which it had become accustomed. But road-building and highways are such a part of Texas culture that even revenue shortfalls were not likely to change our ways drastically. If taxpayers cared enough about their roads, revenues could be bolstered. That’s what happened in 1977, when the 65th Legislature first allowed the highway department to dip into the general revenue fund when funds from the gasoline tax and the motor vehicle registration fees fall short. And that’s what is likely to happen again in this summer’s special session. The highway department says the $3.9 billion granted by the legislature last session for the 1984-85 biennium was not enough. They had requested $5.6 billion a 93 % increase from the $2.9 billion spent in 1982-83. That $2.9 billion had, at the time, set off alarms about the highway department’s being broke because it was half a billion dollars less than the department spent in 1980-81. We began to hear a great deal from the highway lobby on how scarred and decrepit Texas roads were becoming and how, if we didn’t do something about it, the future of our roads was lost. Most people have accepted the argument that Texas roads are in sorry shape, or that they soon will be. State Rep. Jim Crockett, D-Pearsall, is concerned about the roads in his district, which includes five counties south of. San Antonio. “It’s almost worth your life to drive down from Charlotte on Highway 16 to Tilden,” he says. The road is “a series of patches for, I would say, a good fifty miles.” State Rep. Lee Jackson, R-Dallas, says he drives around quite a bit in Texas and in other states and believes “the case is pretty strong” that Texas roads are deteriorating. Last fall, a Texas Monthly writer ended an article on highways with the worry that she would meet her end by hitting a pothole and smashing into a semi truck. Gov. Mark White believes the highway department needs more money than the 68th Legislature granted. In his $4.8 billion tax proposal announced May 11, he proposed an extra $942 million for highways over the next three years. This would come mostly from a nickel-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax. Crockett and Jackson, who both sit on the House Ways support an increase in the motor fuels tax. “We just have to do it,” Crockett says, predicting that the nickel-a-gallon tax will pass in the special session. But Jackson says more than the nickel tax is necessary. “I don’t think the governor’s five cents tax, without other changes, will produce much of a highway program.” He supports “having a look” at other transportation user fees, such as the motor vehicle registration fee. The highway department wants an extra $1.2 billion next year, far more than White’s recommended $263 million. Curiously, even the highway lobby isn’t pushing that much of an increase for 1985 they are seeking a permanent increase of $800 million per year, according to Eugene Robbins of the Texas Good Roads and Transportation Association. Robbins recommends increasing the gasoline tax as well as upping the motor vehicle registration fee by $25. White’s tax package did not include an increase in registration fees. When the highway department claims to need an extra $1.2 billion next year, it points to a plan drawn up by the highway department in 1982 that estimates the state will have to spend $61 billion over the next 20 years on highways. Now, with the projected $5.6 billion for 1984-85 unmet, the department is already off pace. A revised 20-year plan is due to be presented to the Highway Commission on June 21. About two-thirds of the highway budget over the 20 years would go to major road work building new roads and reconstructing existing ones. Road rehabilitation, restoring a road to its original quality, would account for 14% of the budget. Of the contracts let in the 1982-83 fiscal year, 31 % were for road rehabilitation, 42% were for reconstruction, and almost 15% were for building new highways, according to highway department figures. The idea that there might not be enough money to pay the bills never seemed to enter into the highway department’s 20-year plan. Instead, the state asked each of the 25 highway district offices to make a list of what needed to get done, and almost all of those “needs” made it into the state plan. This was the state’s big chance to offer a vision of the future of transportation in Texas, but the vision looks suspiciously similar to the past. The planners have assumed more and more cars and trucks and planned bigger highways, and of course the one feeds on the other. The ultimate end seems to be to bring Los Angeles to Texas. Mass transit, once again, is a nearly invisible option to Transportation. The 20-year plan allowed 1.1 % of its budget to public transportation. State Rep. Clint Hackney, D-Houston, has been one of the few ardent supporters of a public transportation future for Texas. “There hasn’t been enough talk about it,” he says, “and there hasn’t been enough action on it.” “I’d like to talk about it in the special session,” Hackney says. “I’d like to take some of that money that’s been dedicated to highways and dedicate it to public transportation.” But, he says, education funding is a priority for him, too, and the public transportation debate may have to wait until the next session. The president of the Texas AFL-CIO is skeptical of the highway department’s priorities. “There is no general crisis in highway building,” Harry Hubbard said in a letter to two legislators. “In areas where crises do exist, such as Houston, THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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