A simplified version of SB 855 emerged Tuesday that would let counties in 85 percent of the state call elections asking voters for a one-time, 10-cent-a-gallon tax increase. The ballot would have to specify what projects the money would go to, along with their cost and completion dates.
The money could be used on roads or passenger rail, assuming that an accompanying constitutional amendment to allow such elections passes the Legislature and is approved by voters in November. The Texas Constitution currently allows gas tax money to be spent only on road projects.
Even after a project is paid for, the bill would allow the extra gas tax money to be used for maintenance and operations. It would also devote all locally raised gas taxes to transportation; 25 percent of the current gas tax goes to education.
Austin transportation officials couldn't say what a 10-cent increase might bring to Central Texas. However, the North Central Texas Council of Governments has estimated that, with about 6 million people, the increase would raise about $370 million a year. Assuming a similar ratio, the three-county Austin area could bring in about $90 million a year.
Carona's bill likewise limits the gas tax to 10 cents per gallon, but offers a menu of other options, including parking taxes, driver's license renewal fees, and new vehicle registration fees. It would allow counties raise more money, in other words.
Cities and counties need autonomy over their own infrastructure. They shouldn't have to beg TxDOT for their fair share. They will invest their money more wisely and efficiently than TxDOT (usually) because they know their needs better than bureaucrats working off a different agenda. And cities and counties, like people, have different preferences. Some prefer more or better roads, while others prefer rail. Some prefer all the infrastructure they can get, while others would gladly let their infrastructure decay a bit if they could get cheaper gas.
There is always the risk that cities or counties will invest their money foolishly. But when a county makes a boneheaded decision, its residents are the ones who suffer. When TxDOT adopts an idiotic policy, everyone in the state suffers. Unfettering counties and cities is a good thing, and this bill would be a good first step.
I do have a couple of criticisms. First, neither bill would allow counties to use the money to maintain local streets. Counties instead would have to dedicate the money to specific capital improvements identified on the ballot. A gas tax is a much better way to fund the maintenance and repair of local streets than property and sales taxes, though. It's more equitable -- those who don't use local streets much don't have to subsidize those who do -- and provides a stable funding source, freeing up general revenue money for other things.
Second, the 10-cent-per-gallon limit is a silly bit of nannyism. Any tax must be approved by a majority of the county's voters. If a county's voters want more, what business is that of the Legislature's? It's not like central-city residents can stick suburbanites with punitive tax increases; suburbanites (or others who drive a lot) predominate almost everywhere. In any event, it's a small increase given current gas prices, and less than the weekly variation in gas prices of a year or so ago. Ditch the cap.