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Texas faces a huge funding gap on transportation, agency chief warns
January 8, 2010

Texas needs more money – hundreds of billions of dollars more – to maintain its roads and bridges and build the new ones needed to serve the state's growing population, the Texas Department of Transportation's executive director said Thursday.

Written by MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER , The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Texas needs more money – hundreds of billions of dollars more – to maintain its roads and bridges and build the new ones needed to serve the state's growing population, the Texas Department of Transportation's executive director said Thursday.

Amadeo Saenz, opening a conference on transportation, said no amount of technological innovations or other improvements will be enough if Texas can't find more money to spend on roads.

"The financial challenges we're facing in transportation don't mean congestion will get a little worse. Or roads will get a little rougher. Or projects will take a little longer," Saenz told hundreds of engineers, architects, planners and government officials from across Texas and the U.S. at the fifth annual Texas Transportation Forum.

Instead, the gap between needs and expected funding is huge, and so will be the impact on Texas drivers, he said.

How to pay for Texas' sprawling highways and bridges, and keep up with traffic in fast-growing cities like Dallas, has emerged as a key issue in the race for governor.

Gov. Rick Perry has not called for a tax increase, but he has insisted that Texas needs more money for transportation – from tolls, from more federal dollars and by steering more existing state revenue to transportation.

At the same time, he wants to make it harder to raise taxes.

He proposes a constitutional amendment to require a two-thirds majority in the Legislature before any tax increase could become law, a step that could make it more difficult for lawmakers to raise revenue for transportation.

His challenger, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, said last week during a stop in Dallas that she's not convinced the Transportation Department needs more money.

Instead, she said, she would appoint a panel to study the department and its needs before supporting a tax increase, something many road-building advocates are calling for.

Saenz didn't mention the campaign, but he stressed that a panel of experts appointed by the Texas Transportation Commission has determined that Texas will need $332 billion more over the next 20 years than current revenue would provide.

Without it, commutes in Texas' biggest cities will grow longer as an ever-growing share of the department's revenue goes to maintain its roads.

Among the members of the panel was former Transportation Commission Chairman David Laney, who introduced Hutchison in Dallas last week.

"Gas-tax revenues are already down," Saenz said, noting that total fiscal 2009 gas tax receipts were 2 percent less than the year before.

Agency officials said collections have been down about 1.25 percent so far this year from the same point last year.

"If we continue to pay for our roads and bridges using mostly vehicle registration fees and gasoline taxes, we're not even going to come close," he said. "No one has offered to write us a [$332 billion] check, and I noticed there were no collection buckets at the doors when you came in."

Saenz noted that the department is busy for now on projects paid for by $2.8 billion Texas received in highway-related federal stimulus funds last year, and in spending another $2 billion or so in proceeds from bonds approved by Texas voters in 2007. But those funds are running out fast.

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