After a Productive Five Years Transportation
Advocates Still Have Much To Do

 

January 15, 2016

 

When Transportation Advocates of Texas (TAoT) was organized in 2010 it had a mission – finding a way to bring together many advocates to more effectively engage all 181 members of the Texas Legislature in support of additional resources to address a rapidly growing highway funding gap.

 

The mission was, in part, the outgrowth of advice from Rep. Todd Hunter, chairman of the House Calendars Committee and part of the leadership team that must decide what and when legislation should be debated and put to a vote. Hunter counseled that transportation supporters from various regions and organizations were very effective in communicating with the members of the House and Senate transportation committees but that they failed to engage the other 160 or so members to help them understand why they should support additional and sustainable funding for transportation. Other members said they were hearing different messages from different transportation advocates and this left lawmakers confused as to what measures to support. That meant that the votes were simply not there to pass anything but short-term, patchwork measures that allowed highway construction to continue but did not create the reliable, dedicated transportation funding that avoids the pitfalls of unpredictable spikes and slumps in highway money. What transportation advocates needed was to present a consensus message clearly and consistently – TAoT was the vehicle to achieve this goal.

 

In the 2011 legislative session, the first task was to make sure lawmakers authorized issuance of all of the voter approved Proposition 12 bonds so that TxDOT had the ability to continue building. Another milestone was passage of legislation that increased the utility of Transportation Reinvestment Zones as an effective partnering tool for TxDOT and local governments. That session also successfully passed a substantive TxDOT Sunset Bill. But there was no progress on approving additional highway funding.

 

TAoT spent 2012 targeting lawmakers with the message that a major funding shortfall was looming in 2014 and beyond as borrowing authority was depleted.

 

2013 LEGISLATIVE SESSION
By the time the 2013 legislative session rolled around, TAoT had expanded the number of cities, counties, mobility coalitions, port authorities, economic development organizations, chambers of commerce, regional alliances, state associations, major employers and concerned business interests ready to pitch in to press lawmakers for action on transportation funding.

 

TAoT started the session with a Capitol event called Transportation 101. More than 100 attended, mostly the legislative staff members who help lawmakers deal with constituents and keep up with policy discussions and pending legislation. It was a watershed event that put a bright spotlight on the details of the House Transportation Committee’s Interim Report recommending an end to diversions from the State Highway Fund and urging passage of new funding to address declining revenue from the state fuels tax.

 

There was a sense that the climate surrounding transportation funding had finally changed for the better. That session, however, was a study in frustration. While state leaders pressed for legislative action, there were not enough votes to get any new funding bill passed. That led a determined Gov. Rick Perry to call three special sessions. By that time TAoT had developed a large and diverse legislative advocacy team and was using hand delivered messaging to give legislators a concise, trustworthy analysis of each proposal.

 

In the end, lawmakers agreed to an outside the box proposal by Senator Robert Nichols, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and a former highway commission member. Legislators sent voters Proposition 1 which dedicates a portion of annual oil and gas production taxes to the State Highway Fund. Our coalition encouraged voters to support Prop 1 and they sent a clear message to lawmakers with 80% approval. The result was that redirected funds immediately started flowing to the State Highway Fund – $1.7 billion in FY 2015 and $1.1 billion in FY 2016.


SUCCESS IN 2015
Along with Prop 1 passage, the 2014 General Election resulted in the election of state leaders who were campaigning on the need for additional permanent and sustainable transportation funding.
As the 2015 legislative session got underway, TAoT continued to focus on educating lawmakers in one-on-one contacts. We staged a second standing room only Transportation 101 seminar which included hopeful remarks by Rep. Joe Pickett, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
It was obvious that momentum was flowing in the right direction when lawmakers signaled they would eliminate diversions of about $650 million a year. That erased a major roadblock to new highway funding proposals.

 

At the end of the 2015 session, lawmakers decisively passed SJR 5, a two-part proposed constitutional amendment to direct billions each year in general sales taxes to transportation. Proposition 7 dedicates up to $2.5 billion a year in state general sales tax revenues to the State Highway Fund for work on non-tolled highways and bridges starting in FY 2018. It also dedicates a portion of future growth in motor vehicle sales tax revenues starting in FY 2020, estimated at $430 million in the first year.


In a historic show of support for transportation, the Texas Senate voted 31-0 and the Texas House voted 141-1 to send the package to voters. Proposition 7 was approved by 83% of Texas voters, another clear message to lawmakers that Texans believe transportation is a core function of government and must be funded adequately and in a sustainable way that allows multi-year project planning, design and construction.

 

LOOKING AHEAD
There is more work to be done. The buying power of the fixed gasoline tax shrinks each year while vehicle fuel efficiency gains apply more downward pressure on traditional revenue. Oil and gas production tax revenues dedicated by Prop 1 track energy prices, down more than 60% in two years. Fewer toll viable projects are on the horizon and sentiment in favor of toll projects has declined. The Texas highway funding gap is still a long way from being filled. Transportation advocates must continue to champion sustainable transportation funding and work with state and federal lawmakers to approve additional incremental funding sources. Our goal is for Texas to have a suite of robust, predictable, long-term financing sources and tools that will meet all of the state’s varied transportation needs.