August 31, 2007
So I’ve been sifting through a few hundred emails that have come in over the last couple of days – not all of them friendly. It hammers home that people are angry – some because so little has been done over the last generation to address a congestion crisis, others because of the paltry set of tools we now have to address them. The anger, in both cases, is reasonable and righteous. That’s part of the reason this has been such a tough issue – both for our region and for me. I’m encouraged that everyone seems to see the problem the same way – traffic is bad and getting worse, we need to fix it, and we need more money to do that. After that, things fall apart a little bit.Some folks say the gas tax has been allowed to deteriorate and has become pathetically inadequate for the task it’s always served: to pay for Texas’ legendary highways. I’m one of those folks. I’m also one of those people that would prefer to not put a toll on our roads. I’ve long been saying that the gas tax needs to be indexed to inflation. I said that during the legislative session, though it should have happened years ago. Instead, the Legislature froze it in 1991 and has refused to touch it since. Keep in mind, this isn’t like sales taxes, which go up when prices go up. The tax bill on a full tank of gas is exactly the same today as it was 16 years ago. In Texas, tax bills have to originate in the House of Representatives. The House wouldn’t even vote on an indexing bill. Furthermore, when there was an effort to amend that proposal onto another bill on the House floor, it lost in a landslide: 122-19. This was a definitive statement by the House that trumped party lines and pretty much any other division in that body. On this, like many things, the House simply does not share my beliefs. I and others in the Senate – including Senator John Carona, the chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee – want to make sure the gas tax can be made to pay for our needs, and we will keep working to do that in 2009. Some have suggested this increase is just an election away. They suggest that we can wait to vote on adding capacity because – if one or two people are removed from the House leadership, or if the Democrats take back the House – then a gas tax increase will pass. But the opposition has been so overwhelming that I think it would be a giant mistake to hitch our region’s future to the hope that an indexing is just one or two elections away. 122-19 is not a vote that says there is only the need to change a few members. As far back as April 2006, Rep. Jim Dunnam, the House Democratic Leader, pronounced, “The gas tax is one of the most regressive taxes we have,” in describing his desire to temporarily lower it. And just this year, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of a gas tax “holiday” that would have stripped the state of about $700 million. At the same time, Congress continues to rescind transportation money to pay for things like the war in Iraq. The state continues to tap highway funds to pay for other needs, all the while hoarding cash to pay for the leadership’s anticipated shortfall from the tax shift of 2006. And a few of us in the Legislature are working overtime to keep the Department of Transportation from auctioning our road infrastructure off to private corporations. We cannot trust the state to provide for our needs or to give us options.Our choice, then, is to do nothing in the face of the problems we know we have, allowing traffic to get worse and worse as we pass more and more of our paralysis onto our children; or we can take the mechanisms we have – whether they are limited land-use authority or transit or, yes, tolls – make sure that they’re transparent and accountable and they truly serve the people of Central Texas, and use them to create a truly comprehensive transportation system of roads, rail, and rapid buses. I hope my reading of the legislature proves wrong. I certainly will continue to work to convince my colleagues that funding transportation adequately is the right thing to do, and I trust I can rely on your support in that regard. And if we’re successful, then we will have lost nothing even by approving these proposed highway improvements. If we get the revenue we need, the schedule allows time for us to easily dump proposed plans to toll these unbuilt, unfunded highway improvements – just as we killed the Phase 2 Plan and pulled the toll booths off of MoPac over William Cannon, F.M. 360, and the already existing parts of U.S. 183 and State Highway 71. These were significant changes that I’m proud to have recommended and assured.But if we fail – if we do not change the state’s stubborn refusal to face up to its transportation needs – then at least we can address our problems, protect our people and our economy, and keep our children from having to spend far more money cleaning up our mess. If we reject these highway improvements, we will end up with something far worse than nothing. Our population will continue to grow. Our economy will continue to boom. And our traffic will get worse and worse until it chokes all we hold dear about this place.Thank you for the time, effort, and passion you all have put into this vital challenge. I know everyone won’t agree with me. But I hope you all will at least help me as we all try to do what’s best for Central Texas and create the comprehensive transportation system that will serve all of us who are here, as well as those who are coming.