State windfall won’t stretch far

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As anyone who drives knows, traveling Interstate 35 in either direction from Austin is, more often than not, a white-knuckle experience — stop-and-go testimony to the state’s explosive growth.

Growth has been solid enough that state officials received a $250 million windfall because income from the sale of Texas license plates was higher than expected. Extra money is always good news, but legislators and highway officials warned once again that even that impressive amount isn’t going to go far.

All those people put stress on the state’s infrastructure and, given projections, getting from Points A to B will continue to be a challenge.

A highway construction plan built into a proposed constitutional amendment approved by the Legislature earlier this year won’t even be on the ballot until 2014. Even so, the amendment won’t generate enough money to meet demand.

The Texas Department of Transportation says it will take $4 billion a year to maintain the current level of congestion on the state’s roads.

That’s not a happy thought, but neither is the highway department’s plan to convert some asphalt roads to gravel in areas of the state experiencing increased energy exploration traffic. The truck traffic to fracking sites in South Texas has caused roads to deteriorate, and TxDOT planners say they don’t have the money to repair them.

TxDOT officials proposed passing the burden of highway maintenance in high-use urban areas to the cities. That proposal had the rare effect of uniting officials in rural and urban areas in opposition.

Gov. Rick Perry has continually opposed raising gasoline taxes as well as vehicle registration fees. Even if taxes were raised, though, increased fuel efficiency would cut into the take. In any event, neither option is available until the Legislature meets again in 2015.

When the $250 million windfall was discovered, legislators huddled with highway department officials about how to put the money to work.

Even $250 million isn’t enough to stretch the need. The Texas Tribune reported that state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-the Woodlands and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told TxDOT officials that the extra $250 million was contingent on the agency agreeing to hold public hearings before converting roads to gravel.

However, Williams warned that counties experiencing energy exploration may have to brace for the possibility that some asphalt roads are going to become gravel.

“There are a lot of problems all over the state, and it’s not just about these 83 miles of road. It’s about people who are sitting in traffic for an hour and half to go a mile or two. There are those problems, too. So don’t look a gift horse in the mouth is my advice to you,” the Tribune quoted Williams as saying.

The advice isn’t what people want to hear, but it’s sound, given the circumstances.

The state has been kicking this can down the road for awhile now. And while legislators have been kicking, the road has been deteriorating.

Austin American-Statesman

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