Lawmakers Make Progress on Transportation Infrastructure

By Representative Tan Parker

Transportation infrastructure ranks high on the list of needs for our great state.  Along with readying a future workforce and maintaining responsible regulatory and tax climates, reliable roads to move goods and services across this state are paramount to our continued prosperity.  Likewise, improving traffic conditions so that hardworking Texans have to spend less time behind the wheel is one of the most meaningful things we can do to improve our quality of life.

I see the problem with my own eyes every day as I drive across Denton County to attend meetings and events, take my children to school and work in my business capacity to provide for my family.  No where in Texas is the problem more evident than in the greater DFW region, where an estimated 7 out of 10 new Texans move each day.

The issue of enhancing our free, non-tolled infrastructure is quite simply a matter of dollars and cents.  The gas tax and vehicle registration revenue that the state brings in is no longer sufficient for funding new, major infrastructure projects.  Quite frankly, this revenue is hardly enough to just cover our annual maintenance expenses on existing infrastructure.  As a fiscally conservative lawmaker, I have long advocated for finding creative uses with our existing revenue streams for bulking up our highway system rather than blindly raising taxes.  After many difficult days working on this issue, I am proud to report that striking the right balance with transportation funding is exactly what we accomplished.

During the 3rd Called Special Session that ended earlier this month, the Texas Legislature put forth a plan that our Governor recently signed into law and voters will be asked to ratify in a 2014 constitutional amendment election.  The plan has several key components, all of which are geared toward investing more in the construction of non-tolled roads.

First, we took the strong stand of reducing our existing transportation debt by requiring the Texas Department of Transportation to identify at least $100 million in operational savings that are then to be used to buy down our existing bond debt.  Just like with changes that were made to how we fund public education, lawmakers are moving toward a pay-as-you-go system of road funding.  Over time, this will reduce the amount of our reoccurring debt service payments and allow us to invest those savings directly into new road construction.

Next, we designed a model where the oil and gas severance taxes that supply our Rainy Day Fund will be split in half as long as a sustainable balance exists in Texas’ savings account.  In splitting the revenue stream, half of it will continue to be deposited into the Rainy Day Fund and the other half will be invested in road construction.  To be certain to protect the intent of the Rainy Day Fund, we were careful to build in a cut-off switch that would end the splitting of the revenue stream if ever the Rainy Day Fund balance fell below a certain threshold so that the fund could then quickly replenish.  With an estimated $8 billion currently projected to be in our Rainy Day Fund by 2015, I do not envision it falling below a sustainable dollar amount, but it is encouraging to know that if that ever happens that we will automatically revert back to our historical system of building it back to prominence.

As long as half of the oil and gas severance taxes continue to be invested in transportation infrastructure, this will raise an additional $1.2 billion annually to build new roads in Texas.  We even included provisions into this plan that ensure that this new funding will be used only to construct free roads and not toll roads.

These meaningful reforms represent a significant step toward building a suitable free infrastructure system that meets our growing demands, but more work on this issue remains.  As the old saying goes, how do you eat an elephant?  Simple, one bite at a time.  Next session we must take another bite and I look forward to supporting other innovative approaches that achieve this goal without raising taxes.

As always, it is an honor to serve you in the Texas House of Representatives and I welcome your feedback on this and any other critical state issues.  If you would like to share a thought with me, please feel free to contact me at info@tanparker.com