State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, filed legislation this week that would constitutionally dedicate the state's motor vehicle tax to the transportation fund. Senate Bill 287 and Joint Resolution 20 would incrementally dedicate vehicle sales taxes over a 10-year period as well as allow payment of transportation related debt.
“It is time to fundamentally fix our long-term transportation funding problem,” he said.
Nichols, who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said current funding mechanisms are not adequate to support construction and maintenance demands for expected population growth. Any long-term solution to funding transportation must meet five core principles — the revenue source must be predictable, constitutionally dedicated, transportation related, independent of fuel sources such as electric, gasoline or natural gas and automatically adjust for inflation.
The motor vehicle tax generates around $3 billion a year, Nichols said. He believes voters would approve dedicating the funding to roads and that the money could accrue as major construction projects move through planning stages.
“There is a fundamental problem in the way we have (transportation funding) structured because everything we build, we have to maintain and overhauled,” he said. “So, every time you add capacity you have to maintain it.”
Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he appreciates Nichols' attempt to address the diversion of transportation dollars but that the need for additional funding is the long-term problem.
Eltife said constitutionally dedicating motor vehicle taxes doesn't create revenue but rather shifts general revenue spent on other priorities, such as public education, and dedicates it toward roads and bridges. He said the state does need to stop borrowing to pay for infrastructure.
Eltife said state leaders need to find a revenue source substantial and steady enough to provide a long-term infrastructure solution. He still supports indexing the fuel tax, which he said is the fairest way to spread the cost.
“I like the idea, but there's no new money and that's the problem,” he said. “TxDOT needs to find a new source of revenue if we're going to get out of building roads with debt.”
Nichols said traditional ways of funding infrastructure are falling behind the need for creating new and maintaining old capacity. He places the accrued debt, including one-time federal stimulus dollars and money lent to toll road authorities upwards of $22 billion since 2001.
“That's how the can was kicked down the road,” he said.
One of the answers to the funding problem was toll roads.
Toll roads are the answer for some areas, especially to relieve urban gridlock, Nichols said, but are not viable for needed thoroughfares in other areas.
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, a member of the Transportation Committee, said she supports Nichols' efforts to find creative ways to address “Texas' transportation infrastructure crisis.”
“His approach is worth considering, as are other proposals being debated this legislative session,” Ms. Davis said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him and the Senate in addressing our transportation needs.”
Nichols said he understands funding is at a premium but added the Legislature must begin to address inadequate infrastructure funding. He is hoping legislators and eventually Texas voters support for the legislation.
“This is something I believe in but there will be competition for dollars,” he said. “One thing I've learned in this building over the years is you can do anything as long as you can get the votes.”