May 29, 2007
As many of you know, the Texas Legislature approved Senate Bill 792. Since the legislative session ends today, SB 792 represents our last opportunity to correct problems with our state’s road-building policy.This is not a perfect bill. Far from it. But it does give Central Texas a moratorium on highway privatization and provide a cooling-off period in which we all can measure our massive funding challenges and evaluate our tools to confront them.There are no Central Texas highway projects specifically carved out of the moratorium – indeed, the moratorium will prevent TXDOT from privatizing the toll roads we do have. Only work on the southern section of State Highway 130 can move forward, and that is because the contract to begin that work was signed months before the bill passed.The bill does create a dramatic new process through which much of Texas would plan and build roads, allowing TXDOT and local toll road agencies to evaluate money that can be generated from new toll roads through a “market valuation.” This is the only example I know of where there is an evaluation of public infrastructure based on the money it could raise. It should give us all pause. I was able to secure important protections for Central Texas and a handful of other regions, allowing elected officials to decide whether to scrap market valuations and emphasize other priorities. This critical change guarantees elected officials will be able to ensure that these projects are as transparent and accountable as they need to be. I have been advocating this position for more than a year. It is also important to remember that the moratorium would prevent any contracts from being signed under this new process for at least two years. This vital break will allow all policy makers to evaluate which policies work and which ones don’t.Let’s be clear: this approach is designed to raise transportation money. But that’s not all of the story.Texas, by every measure, is woefully short of transportation money. We cannot confront the toll roads debate – let alone our vast transportation challenges and significant mobility problems – without acknowledging that there is no such thing as a free road.This session, the legislature ignored many pleas to consider raising the gas tax, even though it has been frozen at its current level since 1991 and has been siphoned off for other items. Not only that, but the House of Representatives voted to slash deeply into this revenue stream. This poorly thought-out initiative did not become law. Additional ideas for raising money to pay for transportation also were defeated.Yes, we need to ensure roads, specifically toll roads, do more to serve drivers and communities than to tax them. And, yes, I would prefer the legislature considered more specific protections that the public will need. But short of ignoring our very real and growing transportation challenges, we have little choice but to consider options such as this one.Ultimately, something must be done to meet our transportation needs. As we now know, as the members of the legislature return home at the end of a legislative session, our toolbox is mournfully limited.