Cornyn: Road-funding system needs repairs
Federal highway trust ‘archaic and outdated,’ senator laments in FW
FORT WORTH — If Congress is looking to show a spirit of bipartisanship on the heels of the midterm elections, highway funding is a great place to start, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said Friday.
“Transportation is still something that’s a nonpartisan issue,” Texas’ third-term senator said after headlining the Tarrant Regional Transportation Commission’s annual luncheon. “Everybody loves improving infrastructure. Now, if we can come up with the money ...”
A major challenge, Cornyn said, is to overhaul the system by which highways are funded, somehow getting away from dependency on gas taxes that neither federal nor state leaders have touched for decades or are willing to touch.
As cars became more fuelefficient and inflation mounted over those decades, Cornyn said, the Highway Trust Fund became “archaic and outdated. It simply doesn’t serve its purpose.”
And as Texas leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have noted, Texas has lost billions in highway funding because under the formula, it is a “donor” state. On Friday, Cornyn pointed a finger at the year 1789, when the Senate was created with two members per state.
“When we’re trying to get allocations, those small states gang up on the big states,” Cornyn said. “I say that with all goodwill, but it’s true. And I resent it. We only get 92 cents for every dollar we send with the gas tax.”
As they worked toward their legislative goals for 2019, regional transportation officials said the federal highway fund is on a path to be insolvent.
“And in Texas, we need $150 billion over the next 20 years just to stay even,” said Gary Fickes, a Tarrant County commissioner and RTC chairman. “We’ve got close to 500 people a day moving to the North Texas region. It’s every day, and they’re bringing two cars to a family.”
Cornyn noted that with North Texas’ economic momentum, “if you don’t build it, they’re still going to come,” leading to infrastructure nightmares.
He praised Texas’ creation of new means of highway funding under former Gov. Rick Perry, specifically the type of public-private partnerships that are part of President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan.
“It introduced a controversial thing — toll roads in Texas. It wasn’t very popular, but it’s an important tool,” Cornyn said, adding that he is excited by North Texas’ innovations. “Don’t depend on the federal government to take the lead on innovation. We need your input.”
Texas’ new ideas include what voters approved as Prop 1 and Prop 7. In 2014, voters dedicated taxes from oil and natural gas production to transportation projects. The next year, another statewide election put some sales and use tax revenue into transportation.
But in recent years, Austin officials have become weary of tolls. Local officials worry that if public-private partnerships are part of Washington’s solution, the state might be shortchanged.
“Trump’s infrastructure thoughts were 20 percent federal and 80 percent state or private sector,” Fickes said. “And that’s kind of the formula that Texas used over the last decade. We can’t replicate that again without the tools we were able to use to do that.”
The RTC — 44 locally elected officials who distribute state and federal transportation dollars — will vote on its legislative agendas next month.
Among the draft recommendations to meet transportation and air quality needs are to authorize the use of publicprivate partnerships for specific projects and to have the state clarify the difference between toll roads and managed lanes — which are alongside free lanes in highway builds, but give drivers an option to pay a toll for faster travel.
At the federal level, the RTC would like a six-year bill to provide stability for transportation planning and to implement a pilot program in which taxes are generated based on miles driven.
A former judge, Cornyn said Friday that he’s not interested in the new U.S. attorney general vacancy, rather that he can serve best on issues like transportation from the Senate seat he’s occupied for 16 years.
“He’s in a position to really make a difference, and I know he’s extremely concerned about transportation,” Fickes said. “There’s no Democratic highways or Republican highways. We’ve got highways.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-texas, visited with Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price during Friday’s luncheon at the Omni Hotel. Cornyn says the United States must get away from its dependency on gasoline taxes for highway funding.