How to solve the Texas traffic problem

Photo by Mark Graham

In the nearly 60 years since the birth of the American interstate system, the federal government has played an increasingly large role in paying for the country’s transportation network. What has not grown with the federal government’s role is its ability to actually solve our transportation problems.

From highway safety to rush-hour congestion to air quality, each Texan might rank our transportation problems differently. However you evaluate them, one constant remains: The federal government’s authority outstrips its actual ability to help. Washington’s faults are rooted in both structural and political shortcomings.

Congress sends transportation money to the states through outdated and politically driven formulas. By any reasonable measure, the ratio of dollars sent back to Texas does not represent Texas’ proportion of transportation needs. We’ve subsidized other states for too long. Congress simply won’t tackle the fundamental fairness issue. 

The structural limits to the federal role in highway policy aren’t new, but they’ve managed to get worse. Fuel tax revenue has not kept up with highway budgets. In response, Congress has injected general revenue into the Highway Trust Fund. Before the Troubled Asset Relief Program or the Detroit rescue, the first bailout approved in 2008 was for the highway fund. Alongside other budget tricks, these infusions kept the federal money flowing (barely). Transportation operates on a large scale that can’t stop and start on the whims of Congress.

The federal government has warned that at the end of July, it will be unable to pay its highway bills again. Even if Congress hammers out a short-term fix, the broader problem of how to pay for roads remains. Six years and tens of billions of dollars in bailout money later, it’s clear that regardless of which party controls the White House or either house of Congress, Washington is the wrong place to look for help with our transportation problems. 

Without federal funding reforms, it’s starting to sink in that there are more reliable ways to do this. States are taking matters into their own hands. Almost a dozen are studying a mileage tax. Others are raising their gas tax. Texas has the opportunity to embrace a different solution.

In November, Texans will vote on a constitutional amendment to provide billions of dollars more in reliable transportation funding — an estimated $1.4 billion in the first year alone — without creating new taxes, fees or debt. The amendment, Proposition 1, would authorize annual disbursements from the state’s oil and gas production tax collections to the State Highway Fund. The amendment would mark a serious step toward meeting our funding needs.

After the November election, the ball is back in the court of the Texas Legislature. Simply passing Proposition 1 is not enough to address our transportation challenges. Texans need to demand more from their new governor, new lieutenant governor and their legislators. The Texas Department of Transportation needs to be given clear goals to which it will be held accountable and the resources and authority to meet them.

Creating a sustainable transportation program for Texas will mean supporting flexibility for communities and recognizing that what works in Amarillo, for instance, may not be the best solution for the San Antonio suburbs. Just as important, state policy will need to evolve to reflect new ways of delivering mobility to families and businesses. And those modern transportation customers need to make their voices heard.

In other words, florists, plumbers, manufacturers and realtors need to join with contractors and engineers to call for increased investment in the infrastructure we will all use to travel with our families and help grow our economy.

Move Texas Forward is a new coalition committed to helping create lasting solutions to our state’s mobility challenges. The group includes what might be called the usual suspects in the transportation debate, along with business and community leaders who share a common goal of helping our state move people and goods safely and reliably as we continue to grow. We’re supporting Proposition 1, and we want Texans from every walk of life to join us in the discussion about how to build a transportation network that can keep up with our great state.

Waiting on Washington will get us nowhere. Texans have to expand the transportation discussion beyond complaining about the drive to work. Next session, the Texas Legislature should ensure that the money Texans pay into the state highway fund is used on roads. Ending these diversions could put an additional $1.3 billion toward transportation projects. The state should also consider dedicating a substantial portion of the motor vehicle sales tax to road construction and maintenance, providing a long-term and sustainable funding source for our critical infrastructure.

Together, we can leverage the resources to solve problems in ways that reflect the priorities and values of our communities. Voting for Proposition 1 is only the first step.

Deirdre Delisi

Former Texas Transportation Commission chairwoman