Cuthbert Allgood (nevermind6794) wrote in talk_politics,
Cuthbert Allgood

On Texas and highways.

Texas is a place of wonder. Partly because of its great food, but mostly because its politicians are consistently rewarded for incompetence. There would be more links there, but I didn't want to do a different link for every letter in "incompetence."

The latest thing here is our budget. We're looking at somewhere between a $12 billion and $20 billion budget shortfall next year (our legislature meets every two years, for 180 days), and we have a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Predictably, everyone is pledging to do this without raising taxes. Also predictable but less obvious, infrastructure is getting ignored. TxDOT spending is already pretty slim, and it looks like it's getting cut even further. What I've heard around the office (I work in transportation engineering at the moment) is that there will be no state funds for new construction over the next ten years, only for maintenance.

To which a reasonable response may be that things need to be cut, and it will be painful, and anyway I just want new highways because I want a job (I'm actually planning on leaving soon, and I have different ideas about how this whole system should work - ask in the comments if you're interested). Thing is, TxDOT just started studying traffic congestion on a large scale, to better target its funding. And we are totally screwed. Hundreds of millions of dollars lost from our economy annually because too many people need to use roads that are not up to the task.

Now, this is not a new problem. Infrastructure of all kinds has been underfunded for some time (see New Orleans for one dramatic example). The gasoline tax is not indexed to inflation, and has not been raised since 1990. That's obviously a problem in and of itself, but beyond that we have more fuel-efficient vehicles that can "use" more highway on less gas, and it taxes all gasoline regardless of whether the vehicle ever gets on the highway. It's just not good policy. People may also complain about diversion of these dedicated funds, but that kind of misses the point.

So, what to do? I would build publicly owned toll roads that operate similarly to the ones we already have in Houston, which covers maintenance costs, bonds, and any necessary capacity increases, and also begins a shift to user fees instead of our current haphazard funding method. They would be publicly owned because privately held infrastructure costs/charges more, and once it ceases to be profitable may be left to collapse or be taken over by public entities anyway. It's also nice to have the force of law with regard to fines. As far as the up-front capital costs go, we are already borrowing money on top of gasoline taxes. One of the more interesting experiences I've had in my job was at a contractor luncheon, where the attendees applauded passage of a bond issue to pay for highway construction. This marked the first time Texas has had to borrow money to do so, which means it's looking pretty grim. But I digress. Bond yields in general are extremely low, as are construction costs. This is a golden opportunity for governments to start making up for lost time and spruce up our infrastructure, along with improving our current faulty funding mechanisms. The gas tax should be raised temporarily (this won't happen, but it should) to fund this transition, and then phased out.

Just to tie this into a more controversial topic, this is the same thing that should have happened with the stimulus. Circumstances are (were?) perfect for fixing up our infrastructure. Yeah yeah, Obama wanted to focus on shovel-ready projects. Problem is, lots of worthwhile projects hadn't yet been designed, even though they were necessary. We've got lots of construction workers left over from the real estate bubble waiting on the sidelines, skills atrophying. Yet another strike that Obama watched sail by.
Tags: budget, texas
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