Written by Phil Cerroni
By Elaine Paniszczyn
Gasoline prices went up this week at least in part because Hurricane Isaac disrupted oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. Regardless of the price of gasoline, the state of Texas still collects only 20 cents tax per gallon, just as it has since 1991. Five cents of that goes to education and 15 cents goes to the highway fund.
“The general public doesn’t realize that despite the price of gas, the state government isn’t getting any more money,” said State Representative Joe Pickett (D) from El Paso, who serves on the Texas Transportation Counsel in Austin. “It is a fixed rate, and it is declining.”
Pickett said that individuals pay an average of $9.54 a month on gas tax right now in Texas, but that in 1991 they were paying a little over $12 a month, and in 2016, they will be paying an average of $6 a month for gas tax. He also said the public is not prepared to believe those facts because of all the construction they see around their roadways.
“Most people do not understand how all that works or where all the money for those projects comes from,” Pickett said. “This is reality; it’s not somebody playing with numbers. We’re buying cars that get better gas mileage. We’re planning out our trips better, and we’re driving less.”
In the Dallas Metroplex, which has the longest light rail system in the United States, locals are starting to change the way they choose to go to work, out to eat, and to entertainment venues. Statistics show that DART ridership is up over seven percent in the last year, and households can save approximately $9,500 a year by taking public transit instead of driving cars.
“There are posters around Texas that say ‘Dump the pump. Quit buying gas. Take mass transit,’” Pickett said. “Mass transit lives off gas tax. The public is getting mixed messages: ‘Don’t use gasoline, take mass transit,’ but 2.86 percent of the federal gas tax being collected per gallon is going for mass transit.
“We’re at a crossroad,” Pickett said. “We have a crisis. We’re about to run out of money for transportation infrastructure.”
Most everything costs more today than it did 25 years ago, but the gas tax has not been increased since 1991.
“So why is it when people talk about increasing gas tax, we have a problem?” Pickett asked. “Because it’s called ‘tax.’
“Twenty cents gas tax is collected on every gallon, 15 cents goes to the highway fund, and 5 cents goes to public education. I would love to have a vote on whether we need to keep sending that 5 cents to public education.”
Pickett said he supports public education whose budget, including property taxes, is $52 billion a year.
“TxDot’s is just a drop in the bucket compared to that,” Pickett said. “That nickel could give us a shot that I think we could use that public education could absorb.”
He said that would mean $500 million less for education.
In the last legislative session, State Representative Linda Harper-Brown (R) from Irving proposed a bill that would let the public vote on whether or not to give the entire 20 cent gasoline tax to the transportation fund.
“Transportation is a driver in our economy, and we have to realize how important it is to the entire state,” Harper-Brown said. “We would put the money back in; it would not reduce the funding going to education. It would just be that we would take that money out of the general revenue instead of taking the gas tax portion of it for that.
“It has to go to the people. All we were asking is, let’s send it to the people and ask them if we could do that with the idea that we would replace it out of general revenues. Then the gas tax would be dedicated solely to transportation.”
2014 and beyond
“After 2014 there is no more money in the state of Texas to build new roads,” said State Representative Larry Phillips, Chairman of Texas State Transportation Committee. “Our funding sources are not keeping up with our needs. The population is growing: 1,000 to 1,500 people a day are coming to Texas because of the jobs here and the weather.”
More people mean more wear and tear on Texas highways and more congestion.
“The average Texas commuter spends 30 hours a year stuck in traffic which results in an annual cost to drivers of $928,” Phillips said. “The total cost of traffic congestion to the state economy in terms of delay and excess fuel exceeds $10 billion annually. If we do not address our transportation needs within the next 25 years, the average commuter will spend an average of 140 hours a year delayed in traffic, and the delay cost will rise to $3,300 in today’s dollars.
“In 2035 the cost of congestion to the state as a whole will exceed $63,000 in today’s dollars. If we just spend like we do now, the increased use and congestion will cost us in excess of $1.1 trillion over the next 25 years.”
Some say that increasing vehicle registration fees is the answer to increasing funds for the transportation fund.
“Vehicle registration fees bring in about $2.5 billion,” Phillips said. “The tax per car is $62.75 on average. Some states have a property tax on vehicles. In Connecticut an average car is paying $1,100 in property tax above a $62.50 registration fee. They have a gas tax rate of 25 cents. The total fee is $1,348.
“New Hampshire’s vehicle tax is $258 besides their registration fee of $43.20.
“We have to deal with the gasoline tax,” Phillips said. “The gasoline tax is a problem, not because it’s too low, necessarily, but because it’s declining. We have to have a national conversation about how we are going to replace that in the near, mid and long term.”
“There are a lot of dollars that don’t go into transportation that are transportation related,” Harper Brown said. “Many of our fees and taxes that are direct transportation charges go into the general revenue funds. We are looking at those and are looking at ways to dedicate those for transportation. We have a lot of opportunities before us, and we are probably going to be looking into this in our next legislative session.”