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Keep transportation options open

October 4, 2016

Bill Hammond, For the Express-News

Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen is famous for his hit about the road going on forever, but the fact is Texas roads aren’t as limitless as we might hope.

It seems that for far longer than anyone would like, we’ve been debating how Texas can best meet its ever-increasing demand for new highways, as well as maintenance of existing ones.

If you’re stuck in traffic, you just want solutions. And the problem is only getting worse. The American Society of Civil Engineers predicts the amount of time we spend in traffic will triple by 2020 if we don’t quickly invest in infrastructure.

But keeping pace with the demand for roads is a multibillion-dollar proposition, and the old gas tax isn’t cutting it. It hasn’t for years. The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, and the state gas tax not since 1991. At the same time, the purchasing power of that revenue has dropped some 28 percent between 1997 and 2014.

Traditional funding for roads has relied on the gas tax, but even if some of those funds weren’t diverted to other budget priorities, it’s clear we still couldn’t keep pace with demand. The tremendous population boom we’ve experienced in our state only exacerbates the challenge.

That’s why Texas state leaders over the past decade explored other options and rightly included partnerships with private business. Partnering with the private sector, for example, has meant Texans have seen transportation options developed and delivered far faster in recent years.

Roadways like the LBJ Express and North Tarrant Express in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are examples of what can be accomplished when we keep all options for transportation financing and construction open. Both of these projects — financed, maintained and managed by the private sector — opened ahead of schedule and under budget, and years earlier than if they had been developed under old funding models.

And for all of the discussion — and often the misinformation — about these public-private partnerships, it’s important to remember that the state and its taxpayers are well protected in these arrangements.

Under the public-private model, the roads are ours — the state owns them. The companies that develop these projects must shoulder the financial risk and manage the project from design to development to maintenance for the life of their contract with the state. The money the state receives from these partnerships goes back to the state to help us meet roadway needs across Texas.

Unlike state-financed roads, there are no public bailouts for privately funded highways. In Central Texas, for instance, the Texas Transportation Commission was forced to pump more than $100 million extra into the state-run portion of Texas 130 in its initial years of operation when toll revenue wasn’t sufficient to cover operation and maintenance, as well as debt payments. There are no such bailouts for privately financed and managed tollways.

As lawmakers prepare for the 2017 legislative session, we believe it vital that public-private partnerships remain one of the funding options to address our roadway needs. In addition, I’ve opined more than once about exploring additional options for increasing infrastructure revenue, including modest increases in vehicle registration fees.

The long-term cost for closing down transportation funding models is far greater than the options I’ve long urged Texas leaders to embrace. In fact, TRIP, a national transportation research organization, pegged the cost of Texas’ traffic congestion, damage to vehicles from bad roads, and accidents from poor roadway maintenance or safety features at nearly $2,000 a year for every Texas motorist.

The bottom line is this: Our state economy is humming. But maintaining that positive tune means we must have the infrastructure to support growth and address current needs. After all, when inadequate highways produce gridlock, it becomes far more difficult for employers to produce, period.

As much as we would like to believe the road goes on forever, if we don’t keep all our transportation funding options open, we’ll hit a dead end.

Bill Hammond is CEO of the Texas Association of Business.