Newly flush TxDOT ponders how to spend voter windfall

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Uncle TxDOT has come into some money recently and, naturally, the nephews and nieces have begun to show up on the doorstep.

An amendment to the Texas Constitution that should send $1.75 billion to the Texas Department of Transportation, at least in this first fiscal year, eked out a victory Nov. 4 by a mere 2.4 million votes. The amendment specified that that money, which otherwise would have gone into the state’s rainy day fund, could be spent only on the state highway system for maintenance and expansion.

+Newly flush TxDOT ponders how to spend voter windfall photo
State officials are still deciding how to divvy up the extra money going toward transportation under the state proposition approved by … Read More
That sent a pretty clear signal that Texans would like something done about roads. The $1.75 billion question — and TxDOT started getting this question on Nov. 5 — is which roads. Or more precisely, whose roads. Having a lot of money all of the sudden, while a good problem to have, does carry some pressures.

Earlier this fall, the Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT staff put out a take on what to do, at least in broad terms. The agency proposed putting 30 percent into congestion relief (on urban and suburban highways, in other words), 30 percent on “statewide connectivity” (rural roads), 20 percent on road maintenance, and 20 percent on state highways in areas hit hardest by the shale oil and gas drilling and production boom.

The specifics of how to divvy up 80 percent of that (the non-oil patch spending) would be based on existing complex TxDOT formulas, which take into account population, miles of driving on a per-road basis, total mileage of roads in various areas, traffic congestion and truck traffic, among other measures.

But at a legislative hearing Friday, longtime state Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat and former House Transportation Committee chairman, had his own percentages in mind: 50 percent to the state’s 10 largest transportation planning agencies to decide how best to spend the money to address congestion, 35 percent to TxDOT’s 25 subdistricts (where district engineers and local politicians would decide priorities on both city and county roads), and 15 percent to those hard-hit oil-and-gas roads.

Take the decision-making down to local decision-makers, in other words, rather than leaving it all to the TxDOT folks on East 11th Street.

Pickett emphasized that he was speaking for himself, not the interim committee of House members he chairs, House Speaker Joe Straus or any other legislator. But the message was clear: The Legislature wants a big say in which buckets get the found money, and how big each bucket should be.

TxDOT, it should be noted, doesn’t even have the money yet. A 10-member legislative panel, with the snappy name of the Sufficient Balance Committee, should meet sometime in December. It will have to decide just what the minimum amount of money should be in the rainy day fund for the next year. Assuming the committee approves $6.8 billion, the rather healthy amount in it now, then by January TxDOT should get its half cut of $3.5 billion in oil and gas severance tax revenue that flowed into state coffers in the fiscal year ending Aug. 31. The rainy day fund, meanwhile, would get the other half, putting it over $8.5 billion.

Something like this process would go in the years to come: Comptroller announces a figure available to TxDOT and the rainy day fund, committee sets a sufficient balance number, and then TxDOT gets its cut.

The figure, by the way, could be lower in year two. As you have no doubt happily noticed, gas is selling at the pump for somewhere around $2.65 a gallon. That’s based on $75 a barrel oil, about 20 percent down from the $90-plus figure that prevailed through most of last fiscal year.

Good for road users, bad for the roads they’re using. This TxDOT windfall figures to be erratic.

But TxDOT, and 254 nephews and nieces with names like Travis, Waller, Deaf Smith, Tarrant and Harris, will certainly take it.

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