Groups plan for TxDOT funding gap
Updated Aug. 9 10:30 a.m.
The end of the 2013 regular legislative session left the Texas Department of Transportation well short of the additional $4 billion it said it needs to maintain traffic congestion levels across the state. In the third special session, which concluded Aug. 5, legislators passed a road bill providing TxDOT with an estimated $1.2 billion annually. The resolution will give TxDOT a boost in funding, but long-term challenges still exist.
The road bill will allow residents to vote in 2014 on a constitutional amendment that would transfer a portion of the severance taxes levied on oil and gas production from the rainy day fund to the state highway fund. Legislators failed to pass the bill in the second session due to disagreements on whether diversions should cease if the rainy day fund dropped to certain level. Legislators eventually agreed that a “minimum balance” would be determined for the rainy day fund before each legislative session moving forward.
Original story from Aug. 2
Government offices that handle road maintenance and construction in Harris and Montgomery counties have partnered with TxDOT on funding transportation projects in the past, but many have become more self-sufficient over time.
“Everyone knows what TxDOT is facing and plans accordingly,” said Mark Seegers, communications director with Harris County Precinct 4. “Based on the last several sessions, we expect the worst and hope for the best.”
Seegers said the precinct’s planned road projects will be able to move forward regardless of whether TxDOT gets funding, but some officials point out that a lack of TxDOT funding could result in challenges the long term.
“While we don’t necessarily rely on TxDOT for funding, the work they do on major state roads in our area does help manage congestion,” said Craig Doyal, Montgomery County Precinct 2 commissioner. “The longer the funding shortage goes unaddressed, the greater the burden on local forces to try to keep traffic flowing.”
Funding local projects
TxDOT, county precinct commissioner’s offices, cities and toll road authorities are among the entities that take on local road projects in Harris and Montgomery counties. It is not uncommon for organizations to collaborate on projects.
In Harris County Precinct 4—which includes the Tomball area—roughly $58.8 million will be used to fund the capital improvement projects under construction or out to bid in 2013.
TxDOT is contributing to the development of a Changeable Lane Assignment Signal System at several intersections, which would allow the use of certain lanes to be adapted to maximize traffic flow. TxDOT is also helping with corridor improvements on T.C. Jester Boulevard and is collaborating on a project connecting West Greens Road to Cutten Road with a four-lane boulevard.
TxDOT projects in Montgomery County include widening portions of FM 2978 and FM 1774 to relieve traffic congestion. Doyal said these are the sorts of projects that may become less frequent with limited money.
“We do our best at the county level to keep up with what needs to be done and work with TxDOT on the preliminary parts of their projects, like purchasing right of way, when we can,” Doyal said.
Doyal also pointed out that new roads will almost exclusively have to be toll roads. With the first toll roads in Montgomery County under construction—two flyovers at Texas 242 and I-45—the Montgomery County Toll Road Authority will play a crucial roll moving forward.
“There are projects that are going to have to happen, and toll roads are our best method of funding them,” Doyal said.
In Harris County, the toll road authority already helps with road maintenance and county projects. Toll revenues have helped speed up project approvals for the county’s Public Infrastructure Department as well.
Cost of inaction
Transportation Advocacy Group officials in the Houston region estimate the average driver in Houston spends $343 annually in additional repair costs, increased fuel consumption and tire wear because of poorly maintained roads. The average driver in major metro areas spends about 37 hours every year not moving in traffic, which is projected to double to 74 hours by 2028 if funding issues are not properly addressed.
“I think we’re going to see a rise in the level of congestion and continued deterioration of our pavement systems,” said Billy Cooke, chairman of TAG Houston. “I don’t think some of our representatives in Austin recognize how significant the problem is.”
TxDOT is funded through legislative appropriations, which can be raised through a variety of methods, including raising the vehicle registration tax and gas tax. TxDOT is also funded through bond issuances and occasionally from the federal government, officials said.
The main proposal being considered in the state Legislature is House Joint Resolution 2, authored by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. The resolution, if passed, would allow residents to vote in 2014 on a constitutional amendment transferring a portion of the severance taxes levied on oil and gas production from the rainy day fund to the state highway fund. The amendment would result in TxDOT seeing around $900 million in additional funding each year.
Legislators voted on the resolution July 28, toward the end of the second special session, but it was 16 votes short of passing the house, prompting Gov. Rick Perry to call for a third special session with transportation funding as the only agenda item.
The additional funding set aside in HJR2 would be a start, but not enough to address long-term funding issues at TxDOT, which will have a hard time working on new projects while simultaneously paying off bonds and maintaining existing infrastructure.
“We need to find a sustainable source of income for TxDOT moving forward,” Cooke said. “I do not think these proposals fully address the problem.”