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Lawmakers Search For Fixes To Highway Funding

The Texas legislature is mulling the first increase to the fuel tax since 1992. The discussion comes at the same time that some lawmakers in Congress are pushing for an increase to the federal fuel tax, which hasn’t been adjusted since 1993.

The population has boomed in Texas and the highways have crumbled. The Texas Department of Transportation estimates it’s going to take over $4 billion a year to maintain current congestion levels on Texas highways. That number could balloon to $7 billion dollars a year according. Dave Ellis is with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M. He says even when you adjust for inflation, construction costs have ballooned over recent years.

"If you had a half billion-dollar road, if you built it now,  because of the increased cost in construction it'd $665 million and if you built it in 2018 it'd cost about $870 million," Ellis said.

The majority of the State Highway Fund is made of revenue from the state’s fuel tax. However, that rate was set in 1992 and hasn’t been changed since. That means even though gas prices have risen dramatically over the last twenty years, the state isn’t getting a piece. And as cars get more efficient, the state is getting less. James Bass is the CFO of the Texas Department of Transportation.

"One of those challenges is the continuing increasing fuel efficiency of our nation’s fleet," Bass said. "Consuming less gas is great for the environment and for driver’s pocketbooks. But it also means that vehicles can drive much further, increasing congestion and wear and tear on our highways but without generating a proportionate increase in revenue to sustain and maintain that same highway network."

Lawmakers are toying with several ideas to solve the state’s transportation problem. Raising the fuel tax and vehicle registration fee were mentioned. Also, creating more toll roads—there are currently over 400 miles of toll roads in Texas and they generate a revenue of about $1.3 billion dollars. Senator Juan Hinojosa says there’s not going to be any one quick fix.

"I think it’ll take multiple sources of funding to make up that gap of money we’re going to need to fund TxDOT and our transportation needs adequately," Hinojosa said.

Texas voters will decide whether to pass a transportation funding initiative on the November ballot. The measure would authorize annual disbursements from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to the state highway fund. The disbursement in the first year alone would be $1.4 billion dollars.

Updated 6/26/14: Previously, this article erroneously said that the Obama Administration supported an increase to the federal fuel tax. So far, the Obama Administration has opposed an increase to the gas tax, however some lawmakers in Congress have supported it.