Voters asked to approve $1.4B for Texas highways

AUSTIN (KXAN) – In fewer than three months, state lawmakers will gather for the 84th Texas Legislative Session. No doubt, much of their work will focus on a topic affecting every Texan – transportation.

It was quite a talker in the last session, too – sending lawmakers intro triple overtime, hammering out a way to pay for highway projects across the state. But before their financial solution comes through, you have to make a choice at the ballot box.

Join KXAN’s Josh Hinkle for a special edition of our political program – State of Texas: In-depth – taking a closer look at statewide Proposition 1 this Sunday at 8:30 a.m. right before NBC’s Meet the Press With Chuck Todd.

If voters approve statewide Proposition One on Nov. 4, a portion of the state’s oil and natural gas production tax would go to the State Highway Fund. That would direct about $1.4 billion to the Texas Department of Transportation – or TxDOT – the first year alone, and the amount is projected to increase over the next few years. karens co construction

What you need to know about Prop 1 is that:

  • It does not raise taxes, fees or debt;
  • The money cannot pay for toll roads;
  • TxDOT can only use the funding for new highway construction or maintenance.

Without new revenue, the agency says it won’t be able to meet the transportation needs of a state growing as fast as Texas.

TxDOT leaders have said that would take around five billion dollars a year in additional funding. Approval of Prop 1 would get them about a quarter of the way there.

“Congestion’s going to continue getting worse and worse, and the condition of our roadways will start to decline beyond our current conditions, so what we’re really trying to do is just hold our own,” said John Barton, TxDOT deputy executive director.

How did we get here?

This funding crisis is not something that just appeared suddenly. TxDOT and the Legislature have seen it coming for years, because of their

I-35 near Riverside in 1960s after completion
I-35 near Riverside in 1960s after completion. (Photo: State of Texas)

previous financial decisions.

Freeways in the 40s and interstates in the 60s. Texans were traveling faster in less congestion for a long time.

But by the 1990s, the state was building less infrastructure, while population and travel continued to grow. So lawmakers gave TxDOT a way to pay for more highway projects, approving more toll roads and issuing billions of dollars in bonds.

Highway projects soon ramped up. But now, many critics say our credit card is “maxed out,” debts are due, and the one-time funding we once had isn’t enough to keep up with demand.

There are other funding options out there, but it is a matter of lawmakers agreeing which route to take.

Beyond Prop 1, some have pushed for increasing fees or fuel taxes for highway funding. Others have said the state should shift some revenue from vehicle sales taxes to pay for more projects.

And even the Texas Transportation Commission – which oversees TxDOT – recently said it will ask lawmakers to stop diverting highway money to agencies like the Department of Public Safety.

Energy sector roads

No place in Texas tells quite the economic “surprise” story like Karnes County. In the last half decade, thousands of workers have poured in, ranchers have become multi-millionaires and main streets are bursting with new business all because of a sudden oil boom.

While many celebrate the success of that area becoming one of the biggest energy sectors in the state, lawmakers at the Capitol know it comes with a cost – rural roads destroyed by heavy equipment. And despite some funding last session, more money – about a billion dollars a year, according to TxDOT – is needed in places like Karnes County

TxDOT has tried to make tax dollars stretch, tackling traffic problems by widening roads and creating two-mile-long passing lanes fFor drivers to safely get around semi-trucks – hundreds of them each week.

The reason they’re all rolling in? There are about 5,000 of oil wells now. In 2008, there were only 100, and they only produced about 20,000 barrels of oil each month. Now, that number is 6.2 million… which means a lot of money for the state and a lot of trucks to haul heavy machinery and the oil itself.

But in the year after the boom began, the number of vehicle accidents reported here rose from 130 a year to more than 400.

“People hit a pothole and have a blowout and go off to the side of the road,” said Jeremy Hernandez of J.J.’s Towing Service. “Or it could be the severity of (the car) rolling over or a tractor trailer loaded with crude oil.”

Tough to blame it all on the oil business, but locals say it did get worse as traffic increased.

“Seems like it’s a weekly event,” said driver Lisa Labus. “You have to be alert. You have to be a defensive driver.”

Last year, eleven people died on these roads. While accidents might be good for Hernandez’ business, that is a statistic he said he hates to hear.

“Rather them be safe on the road, yes,” he added.

Without state funding, cities and counties in that area face a big financial burden. Some leaders have proposed passing the costs to the oil companies.

Austin’s traffic congestion

Sixty years ago, drivers in Austin traveled a small road through the heart of the city – U.S. Highway 81. As the city grew and the nation’s highway system expanded, the route became Interstate 35 in the early 1960s.

Today, it is the state’s second most congested stretch and the source of stress for many lawmakers. That section consistently misses out on expansion projects because of its proximity to prime real estate.

MoPac on the other side of downtown sits at No. 25, but it is getting a lane upgrade. The southern side of the interstate is No. 35 near a busy highway intersection. And No. 47 and No. 50 go to Lamar Boulevard north and south of the river.

As you consider giving TxDOT billions in funding this election, ask yourself: what is the cost of doing nothing? The Texas Transportation Institute says, drivers pay an average of $343 a year in additional repair costs because of poorly maintained roads.

Texas drivers also spend an extra 37 hours in traffic delays annually, costing the average household $1,500 a year. It is predicted that could be $5,000 a year in 20 years.

Impact on the economy

Texas is located in the heart of national and international trade routes, so investing in the state’s transportation system can have a direct impact on our economy. Underfunding highways can make the price of everything you purchase go up.

Like the maintenance of our homes or our cars, the longer the state waits, the more expensive it will be to fix our highways. In the last few years, we have seen a slow-down in transportation projects across the state, as funding dries up.

As a result, many highway construction companies are reducing staff. But that is not the case north of Austin.

Crews are expanding Interstate 35 in both directions to three lanes and four lanes in highly-populated areas. The 80-mile stretch between Salado and Hillsboro is the type of work TxDOT wants to see across the state, if you vote to give the agency more money this election.

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