Texas legislator seeks gas tax hike to curb tolls

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Texas commuters will pay skyrocketing tolls in the future if they don’t support higher gasoline taxes to build free roads today, a Dallas senator warned. State Sen. John Carona, a Republican who heads the Senate’s transportation panel, told the Dallas Morning News this week that the state’s 20-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline and diesel fuel should increase yearly, in step with inflation.

Carona and House Transportation Committee chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, have introduced bills to enact automatic annual increases. However, the legislation has gone nowhere, even though voters are getting mad as they realize private toll leases could lead to decades of ever-higher tolls, Carona told the Morning News. “We cannot afford to continue to sit here and do nothing,” he told the newspaper.

The motor fuels tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1991, raises barely enough money to cover the state’s maintenance of existing roads, so the backlog of unfunded projects grows steadily, according to the senator. Carona told the Morning News that there’s support for his bill in the Senate but that in the House, “tax fatigue” has set in after lawmakers overhauled and increased the state business tax to reduce property taxes last year.

Under the state constitution, tax bills must originate in the House. “Currently, the political will to raise the gas tax … just simply does not exist,” Carona told the Morning News. Still, Carona thinks the public would accept paying more if it’s assured the money would be used to build roads, and believes that his indexing bill wouldn’t eliminate the need for some toll roads but that far fewer would be necessary.

Tying the gas tax to the national Consumer Price Index would double annual revenues by 2030, Carona told the Morning News. He favors using an inflation index for road construction, which is higher and would triple annual revenues by 2030, and believes that much of the new money could be used to issue bonds, which would boost the building of free roads. “It’s much less expensive to modestly raise the motor fuels tax than it is for people to pay [tolls] on a daily basis,” he told the newspaper.

The state Senate also is considering other bills to scuttle public-private partnerships for toll roads. The most recent action is a measure, attached to the chamber’s version of a must-pass state budget, that would give the state’s five-member budget board oversight of any public-private road partnerships in an attempt to block Gov. Rick Perry’s plans for a 4,000-mile network of toll roads.