Texas transportation funding problem addressed
From Staff Reports

June 27, 2006 - COMMERCE, Texas  -- There is a big funding problem for transportation in Texas.

It's an $86 billion problem, said Texas Transportation Commission Chair Ric Williamson.

Speaking at the regional transportation conference sponsored by the Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Council held at Texas A&M University-Commerce, Williamson said the state has an estimated $188 billion in needed transportation projects between now and 2030 and only $102 billion available to pay for them.

The problem has developed because of a jump in population as people have moved to Texas bringing increased use of roads, while highway capacity has not kept pace, Williamson said.

Other factors are the fixed gasoline amount that has not changed, the U.S. Congress has transferred $7 billion in Texas gas payments to other states in the last 25 years, and the state moved $10.8 billion in transportation funds to other uses, he continued.

Commenting on the transportation situation, Williamson said, "It's a problem that won't go away. It's a problem we must deal with."

The Texas Department of Transportation has a plan to deal with the problem, and "it's a plan that will work," he told the June 23 luncheon audience of community leaders and conference speakers.

The plan is based on these five goals: Reduce congestion, enhance safety, expand economic opportunity, improve air quality, and increase the value of transportation assets.

The plan involves four strategies -- using all funding resources available from the State Legislature and U.S. Congress and empowering local and regional leaders to solve local and regional transportation problems, increasing competitive pressure to drive down the cost of transportation projects, and demanding consumer-driven decisions that may involve solutions other than roads and highways, such as rail systems.

The plan would not increase the tax rate and would "use toll assets the next 30 years where they will work," Williamson said.

While toll roads may be unpopular with some Texans, Williamson said an advantage is getting a new road built 25 years sooner than waiting for state highway funds to be available.

When asked why not increase the gasoline tax to pay for highways, Williamson said he replies it would take a tax of over 90 cents a gallon.

The Texas Legislature has approved new approaches to funding transportation, such as regional mobility authorities, toll roads, pass-through toll financing, state infrastructure bank loans, and comprehensive development agreements.

State Representative Mark Homer of Paris and State Senator Bob Deuell of Greenville, who were among speakers at a morning conference session, said they had supported the new transportation financing options approved by the legislature. Homer said, however, that he feels they are best suited for metropolitan areas.

He said he had concerns about using toll roads as a solution to Northeast Texas transportation needs and didn't want communities put in a financial situation "that would be hard for them to dig out."

Deuell said that on Easter Sunday he had driven bumper-to-bumper on Interstate 35 from Dallas to Austin and that something had to be done about the congestion problem.

"We will work out something that's best for Texas," he said.

Public hearings on the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor 35 are set for July.

A hearing will be held Monday, July 17, at the Fletcher Warren Civic Center in Greenville and Wednesday, July 12, at the Love Civic Center in Paris. A hearing in Terrell is set Wednesday, July 19, at the Terrell Independent School District Performing Arts Center, and Monday, July 10, in the Sherman Municipal Ballroom.

TTS-35 is a multi-use transportation alternative to I-35.

Williamson said there is a misconception that the route for TTS-35 has been selected and "that is not the case."

He said planners have a general idea of a route and know they can't go across a lake, through a national forest, or through a cemetery in a town.

"This is the time for communities to go to the public hearings and say the route proposed is fine or too far away."

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