Cornyn: Road-fund­ing sys­tem needs re­pairs

Fed­eral high­way trust ‘ar­chaic and out­dated,’ sen­a­tor laments in FW

The Dallas Morning News - - State - By RAY LESZCYNSKI Staff Writer rlesz­cyn­ski@dal­las­ Twit­ter: @Raylesz­cyn­ski

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.”

Daniel Carde/staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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