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In this series, we look at needs typically been paid for by the state, but have become local responsibilities. Some call them unfunded mandates.

How You’re Paying (and Maybe Paying Again) for Austin’s Roads

Miguel Gutierrez, Jr./KUT News
Mike Heiligenstein is the Executive Director of the Central Texas Regional Authority. The agency was created in 2002 to design modern transportation systems for Central Texas.

KUT and our city hall reporting partner the Austin Monitor are looking at needs that have typically been paid for by the state, but have become local responsibilities. Some call them unfunded mandates. KUT News and the Austin Monitor will look at key examples of that interaction in our series, “The Buck Starts Here.”  Today, Tyler Whitson and Terrence Henry take on transportation.

Like a car running on empty in search of fuel, Texas highways are in trouble. Rapid population growth, stagnant federal and state funding sources, fuel efficiency improvements and more have contributed to a high-octane recipe for financial disaster.

The Texas Department of Transportation, also known as TxDOT, projected in November that without action, there would be a $5 billion average annual gap over the next several years between available funding and what is needed to maintain state highways at 2010 maintenance and congestion levels.

TxDOT adds that $1 billion of that cost is due to damage from heavy truck traffic related to energy development.

Lawmakers and voters have scrambled to address the shortfall. They found some relief in the November general election with the passage of State Proposition 1, which shifted $1.74 billion of oil and gas tax revenue into the State Highway Fund from the Economic Stabilization Fund this fiscal year and will continue to feed the fund in the future. Similar efforts are underway.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler told the Austin Monitor and KUT News that the TxDOT figure presents a “sobering realization” and said the shortfall puts the region into a difficult funding situation.

“Unfortunately, that means the city government and local tax base is put into the position where there are increasing pressures and stresses to step into that,” Adler explained. “I would much prefer the federal government and the state of Texas to do as they had done in the past, and do what I think is the proper role of the federal and state governments.”

Some have argued that this is an unfunded mandate, not because federal and state lawmakers have required cities and counties to construct or maintain state highways on their own dimes, but because the overall lack of funding encourages local governments to do so using local bond packages, toll financing and other measures.

Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) used the term to describe the predicament. “The fact is that we’ve been living on borrowed money for quite a while in terms of transportation,” Howard told the Monitor and KUT. “This is another one of those unfunded mandates, if you will.

“Local communities are being left with few options, and tolling ends up being one of the options that is used,” Howard continued. “Some people believe that that’s a good option in … that those that are using it are paying for it, as long as you maintain free access at the same time. Then, of course, there are others that feel like that’s saying that you have to have a certain wealth level to be able to benefit from it.”

In its report, TxDOT identified the two primary traditional sources of highway funding as the motor fuels taxes that consumers pay at the pump and vehicle registration fees, noting that they “have not kept pace with mounting transportation demands.”

The combined state and federal motor fuels tax, which is not indexed to inflation, has remained at 38.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 44.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel since 1993, when the federal government last raised it.

According to the Texas Legislative Budget Board, the Texas Legislature raised its share of the motor fuels tax to the current 20 cents per gallon for both categories in 1991 and set the current $50.75 vehicle registration fee for most passenger vehicles and trucks in 2011.

Howard noted that, when considering inflation and improved fuel efficiency, the combined motor fuels tax is worth far less now than when it was set. “In effect, we’re paying much less today than we were doing in the past to try to put money into the transportation system,” she said.

Regional elected officials — brought together as the Transportation Policy Board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, or CAMPO — are facing a tough decision as they consider the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan for Travis, Williamson, Hays, Burnet, Caldwell and Bastrop counties. The plan appears to rely heavily on tolled and express lanes.

CAMPO staff predict in the most recent draft of the plan that the number of tolled highway miles in the region will spike in the next 25 years, going from 331.3 in 2010 to 594 in 2040, plus an additional 192.8 miles of express lanes. During the same time period, it predicts that non-tolled highway miles will expand from 854.5 to 890.4.

Most of the proposed toll roads would be built in what CAMPO identifies as the environmental justice area, a federally defined category that applies to regions with high proportions of low-income and minority residents. The majority of this area lies east of IH 35.

The environmental justice area will see about two-thirds of the tolled highway miles that CAMPO expects to pop up by 2040. It will see about 18 percent of the non-tolled highway miles built in the same time frame, and more than half of the express lanes.

CAMPO staff also wrote that, despite $35.1 billion in proposed spending, “vehicle travel in the region could double by 2040, while road capacity will only increase by an estimated 15 percent.” They also estimate that the population in the CAMPO region will grow from about 1.8 million in 2010 to about 4.1 million in 2040, and from about 1 million to about 1.7 million in Travis County.

Some of that increased capacity will come from $4.25 billion in proposed IH 35 improvements — between SH 130 in northern Williamson County, through Travis County and down to Posey Road in southern Hays County — and $600 million in other proposed road improvements. The plan also includes $341 million for bicycle and pedestrian projects and various mass transit investments.

CAMPO staff and the Transportation Policy Board agreed — with the exception of a minor language adjustment — on several amendments to the plan at their April 13 meeting. It is not yet clear how those changes may impact the overall figures of the plan, as staff has not published an updated draft.

That draft will likely be available in the coming weeks, ahead of a planned adoption at the May 11 Transportation Policy Board meeting that will comply with the May 24 federal deadline. The numbers in the current draft, however, clearly illustrate a tolling trend.

Adler, who recently began his tenure on the Transportation Policy Board, commented on the idea. “No one likes tolls. I don’t like tolls. We all want our roads to be free and available to everyone,” he said. “But ultimately, at the end of the day, if your only choice is to have no additional mobility or mobility associated with tolls, you’re put into a forced choice.”

Adler went on to advocate for preserving free lanes across the city, but also noted the benefits of tolled high occupancy vehicle lanes that would encourage drivers to switch to buses and mass transit.

Since its formation in 2002, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, or CTRMA, has been charged with improving mobility in Travis and Williamson counties. It has constructed and currently operates and maintains two tolled expressways — the 183A Toll Road and the 290 Toll Road, also known as the Manor Expressway — plus 13 miles of shared use paths.

CTRMA spokesperson Rick L’Amie told the Monitor that the independent government agency has constructed 68.8 miles of tolled lanes and 42.3 miles of non-tolled lanes since 2010.

Among other projects, the CTRMA is working with TxDOT to add an express lane in each direction to an 11-mile stretch of the MoPac Expressway, between Cesar Chavez Street and Parmer Lane. An express lane differs from a tolled lane in that it uses variable pricing to manage demand, rather than a flat fee based on vehicle type.

Standing alongside a partially expanded MoPac over Enfield Road on a sunny day, CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein offered the Monitor and KUT his view on the funding situation.

“If the gas tax was raised 20 cents both at the state and the federal level, I think we could probably do most of this work without tolling,” Heiligenstein said. “But trying to get people to agree to that is going to be near impossible. I think we’ll have rain this afternoon before that happens.”

Gesturing toward nearby construction, Heiligenstein argued that tolling provides additional funding options for local governments. “This is a $200 million project. It’s going to have to be paid off,” he said. “We have to pay back $230 million. So if we didn’t toll it, then we would have to go to the city or county and say let’s tax for it.

“This made the most sense, because it also matches up with demand management and the creation of a reliable transit corridor,” Heiligenstein continued. “If you didn’t do that, I doubt that this project would be under construction.”

Heiligenstein added that tolled and express lanes offer the community mobility solutions that might not otherwise exist, such as ways for express buses and vanpools to skip traffic.

According to its current budget, the CTRMA expects to pay off the debt it owes on the 183A Toll Road by 2043 and the Manor Expressway by 2046.

Meanwhile, at the Texas Legislature, lawmakers are moving forward on plans to increase highway funding. Some, following in the footsteps of last year’s Proposition 1, would move existing revenue, while others would create new options for generating revenue.

Howard and Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) have submitted House Bill 1432 and Senate Bill 579, companion bills that would do the latter in Travis County.

The bills would allow the commissioners courts of certain counties to raise vehicle registration fees by up to $10 on their own and $20 with the permission of voters. In Travis County, which places an $11.50 local fee on registrations, the new revenue would go to the CTRMA for transportation projects that would, barring special circumstances, be limited to the county.

The Travis County Commissioners Court has endorsed the bills, though neither have left their respective transportation committees.

Two pieces of legislation passed out of the Senate — SB5 and Senate Joint Resolution 5, filed by Sens. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) and Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) — would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to potentially divert billions in vehicle sales tax revenue from the state’s general fund to the State Highway Fund.

Similarly, House Joint Resolution 13, filed by Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), proposes a constitutional amendment to potentially send billions in sales tax revenue to the State Highway Fund. That bill is currently pending in the House Transportation Committee.

Howard criticized the Senate’s effort to appropriate vehicle sales tax revenue into the State Highway Fund, calling it “a way to get around finding any new money.” While some may agree with her, others may argue that vehicle sales tax is an appropriate revenue stream for funding state highways. Similar arguments can be made about Pickett’s proposal.

If they are successful, however, voters will be making the call.

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