Wear: As Prop 1 roadwork begins, Prop 7 awaits a November vote

By August 25, 2015 No Comments

Austin American-Statesman
By Ben Wear

The Proposition 1 effect has begun already.

And Proposition 7, bigger and steadier, might not be far behind.

Every weekday during the school year, about 2,500 students and a couple of hundred school staffers converge on the intersection of RM 2222 and McNeil Drive, the main conduit to Vandegrift High School and Four Points Middle School.

The single left-turn lane from eastbound RM 2222 just wasn’t up to moving all those people coming from Steiner Ranch and other points west, Texas Department of Transportation officials decided. Getting back out onto RM 2222 at the end of the school day via McNeil’s two lanes was no picnic either.

On Monday, as school begins again, there will be two left turn lanes on RM 2222 and an extra lane coming out of McNeil — thanks to Prop 1.

The $1.1 million project, which was done over the summer, will be the first one completed out of 14 Central Texas highway projects funded through the constitutional amendment approved by voters statewide in November. A second Prop 1 project, on Texas 21 in Lee County, is almost done as well. Six others, including the addition of turn lanes on Loop 360 near Lake Austin, should break ground soon. All 14 will be underway or complete next year, including a $60 million project to improve Interstate 35 between Stassney Lane and William Cannon Drive.

And that’s just from the Austin area’s $110 million share of the $1.7 billion generated in the first year. Under the measure, TxDOT gets half of the oil and gas severance taxes that otherwise would have gone to the state’s rainy day fund.

Come December, the amendment will kick out another $1.3 billion or so for roads, according to the Texas comptroller’s office, roughly what was estimated in January, potentially throwing another $90 million Austin’s way. A spokesman said the stubbornly low oil prices this year (oil was selling for about $40 a barrel last week) have been counterbalanced by higher-than-expected production levels.

And then there’s 2016 and beyond, although the volatile character of oil and gas prices and production make it hard to produce concrete estimates of what Proposition 1 will spit out going forward. But it’s not unreasonable to expect that Central Texas highways will get something close to a $1 billion boost over the next decade from Proposition 1.

Which brings us to Proposition 7.

Texas voters will get their say on this proposed constitutional amendment Nov. 3. If the answer is yes, it likely will generate as much as $3 billion a year, and rising, for highway spending by the end of the decade. The 11-county Austin district of TxDOT, if current patterns hold, would get about 7 percent of that, or about $200 million a year to start.

Throw Proposition 1 and Proposition 7 together and the Austin area could see upwards of $300 million annually for highway work. That is a huge number in a district that historically got $50 million or less each year for road expansion.

TxDOT could take on a lot of problems with scratch of that magnitude, even daunting ones like I-35 and Loop 360.

Based on what happened with Proposition 1, on the near unanimity of the Legislature in putting it on the ballot and the recent history of constitutional amendment elections in Texas (more than 90 percent have been approved since 1995), a “yes” vote is highly likely. But the picture is bit more complicated than it was with Proposition 1.

That amendment took existing tax revenue, from a source that didn’t directly impact voters (oil companies pay the tax, not Joe Blow), that otherwise simply would have been parked in what is already an enormous and growing savings account. Let’s spend it on roads instead of letting it just sit there, supporters said. Almost 80 percent of the electorate agreed.

With Proposition 7, the source would be the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax, which we all pay. Under the amendment, beginning in the 2017-18 fiscal year, the state’s general fund would get the first $28 billion of sales tax that comes in, and then TxDOT would get the next $2.5 billion. Based on early estimates, the total take should exceed the $30.5 billion necessary for TxDOT to get its maximum share.

This division of sales taxes would go on for 15 years, unless the Legislature chose to extend it.

Then, starting in the 2019-20 fiscal year, TxDOT would also get 35 percent of any vehicle sales taxes above $5 billion a year. Again, based on current estimates of Texans’ propensity for buying vehicles, TxDOT should realize several hundred million dollars more annually from that add-on. That provision would last for 10 years

Yes, those details are hard to understand and remember. But the overall point is that at least $2.5 billion a year of sales taxes that under current law would be available for general state spending — on schools, prisons, health and human services and so on — starting in a couple of years instead would go to highways.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, and state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, were the sponsors of the legislation that led to Proposition 1 and, now, Proposition 7. As they did in 2014 before the Prop 1 election, the two have been on the road and will be through the fall selling Proposition 7 to editorial boards and the general public. The pitch is much the same as it was last year, Pickett said: big bucks for roads, with no new taxes or fees.

“We’ll do the math for you,” Pickett said he tells audiences. “Just vote for Prop 7.”

Read the full article here.