Despite highway bankruptcy, Texas GOP does 180 on toll roads

July 16, 2014

If Congress doesn’t act rapidly, states will receive a 28% cut in infrastructure funding, reports The Hill. The Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund will be bankrupt by August 2014, pending a congressional intervention.

As Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox blogged, “For all states… this means we’ll have to stop reimbursing them as they send in their bills for transportation projects… Instead, we’ll begin a new process of slower and lower payments. The approach we’re taking is a fair way to distribute whatever’s left in the Highway Trust Fund. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good one,” the secretary wrote. “There isn’t a ‘good’ option in this situation, and on average, states will see a 28 percent cut in their funding.”

As we reported here last week, the Highway Trust Fund is dependent on a 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax, which has not been enough to support changing infrastructure. The fund is in the red by $16 billion yearly. Foxx visited Kentucky, Rhode Island and Connecticut to warn the states’ governors about the imminent bankruptcy of the fund, if lawmakers fail to intervene. 

“I wish I could say I was visiting those states to offer help, asking their governors, ‘What more can the federal government do? Where can we invest more in your bridges? How about your roads? Your transit systems?’,” he wrote. Instead, he told the politicians that funding would soon be cut. “If states don’t know if federal funding will be available — or how much — they’ll start to pull projects off the books and halt construction.”

Texas toll station

The gas tax-funded Highway Trust Fund is about to go broke and Congress seems unlikely to support an increase, but the all-powerful Texas GOP is opposing toll roads anyway. From Bill Jacobus.

At the same time, the bankruptcy is threatening future and current infrastructure projects, the Texas GOP is changing its opinions on transportation projects affected by the Fund, especially toll roads. As the Texas Tribune reports, during the Texas Republican state convention last month, “Republican delegates removed a provision backing ‘the legitimate construction of toll roads in Texas’ and replaced it with language opposing some aspects of toll projects in Texas, particularly the use of public money to subsidize private entities.”

Why the change in policy? Texas governor Rick Perry is now leaving office after a 14-year term characterized by his dedication to toll roads and toll lanes. Texas has approximately 25 toll roads — and the majority of them have been debuted or expanded since Perry took office. As Susan Fletcher, a Republican delegate who agreed with the change in transportation stance, explained, “There is an enormous amount of toll fatigue in Texas.”

The anti-toll road group Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom drove the charge to change the party’s position. Terri Hall, founder of the group, explained why her group’s suggestions were easily adopted with an example. She cited a 41-mile section of Highway 130, located between Austin and Seguin, which is a privately run toll road that opened in 2012. Though politicians had pointed to it as a “model for the future,” the road has been unpopular among drivers, and revenue has been “far below initial projections.”

Still, toll roads contribute a great deal to Texas’ transportation landscape. Projects totaling in the billions are currently being developed, and many lawmakers are calling for more public-private partnerships. Just as the nearly bankrupt Highway Trust Fund relies on a gas tax that hasn’t been raised in years, Texas’ state gas tax has remained the same since 1991, though construction costs have doubled in the intervening years.

“The purchasing power of that 20-cent fuel tax now is the equivalent of 8 cents,” James Bass, TxDOT’s chief financial officer, said, noting that federal funding has also been increasingly unreliable. The GOP is now asking lawmakers to “adequately fund our highways” — without tolls — and confirms its opposition to “the use of taxpayer money to subsidize, guarantee, prop up or bail out any toll projects, whether public or private.”

That may be easier said than done, however. There’s a $4 billion gap between the Texas transportation department’s budget and what’s necessary to maintain existing traffic. Nixing tolls would make the situation even more challenging. Yet Greg Abbott, a Republican attorney general running for governor, stuck with the party line during a recent speech: “My plan will build the roads for the Texas of tomorrow without raising a single penny in taxes, fees or tolls.”

Time will tell how feasible a toll-free Texas really is: If Congress fails to intervene to rescue the Highway Trust Fund, there will be even less federal support for infrastructure projects, beginning in late August. Gubernatorial elections are November 4.

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Category: Infrastructure

About the Author ()

Katy is a writer, reporter and editor who, in addition to writing for RoadTrafficSigns, has worked with the United Nations Development Programme, Hamptons magazine, Hearst Corporation, The Daily Mail, People Magazine, and a variety of other publications and nonprofits. After graduating with honors from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and distinctions on her thesis and in the consumer journalism seminar, she moved to Milan, Italy. In Italy, she worked as a writer and consultant for an international magazine, editing and translating text and reporting on such events as the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the annual design fair. A born and raised New Yorker, she has lived in three of five boroughs, relying quite a bit on public transport until getting her driver's license at the admittedly belated age of 21.

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