The Texas Transportation Commission awards hundreds of millions of dollars in highway improvement projects every month, including $835 million in July, to improve mobility across the state.
Those projects will be under construction for the next several years, providing thousands of jobs and adding to the economic vitality of local communities. Completed transportation projects enhance the state’s long-term economic competitiveness. And people benefit because highway expansions and upgrades shorten travel times, enhance safety, and save lives. Commerce and business benefit because those road projects accommodate surging freight traffic demand.
It should be no surprise that COVID-19 related economic slowdowns will cause budget headaches for Texas and every state for years to come. Texas Comptroller Glenn Hager recently released an early forecast projecting that the state will fall $4.6 billion short during the current two-year budget. That is equal to a relatively manageable 2 percent of the total budget.
Budget uncertainties will confront Texas legislators when they convene in January. How fast will revenue recover? What will they have to cut for the 2022-23 budget? Those discussions must not ignore the absolute priority that roads and bridges play in our daily lives.
Lawmakers should recognize that an uninterrupted, robust program of priority highway improvement projects is essential to meet the current needs of the pandemic and will be a major contribution to our economic recovery. Underscoring this is our continuing need to address population growth and inadequate, aging highways. That includes thousands of miles of Texas interstate highways that are more than 50 years old. They need to be reconstructed and expanded. That takes money.
Texas highway projects are paid for with a combination of revenue sources including state and federal gasoline and diesel taxes, registration fees, and oil and gas severance taxes provided through Proposition 1 and sales taxes provided through Proposition 7, all of which are constitutionally dedicated to maintaining public roadways. More than 80 percent of Texans voted for Proposition 1 in 2014 and Proposition 7 in 2015, which set aside some oil and gas production taxes and general sales taxes for highways. Those measures now provide about $4 billion a year to build and maintain our roadway system. In a sense, those funds are making up for the loss of some $20 billion in projects due to legislative diversion of highway funds to other purposes over the previous two decades.
We have a major highway funding gap in Texas resulting from dramatic population growth, industrial and commercial expansion, accelerating goods movements by truck, and an explosion in oil patch truck traffic — all on top of decades of under-investment in system preservation and expansion. While the Transportation Commission has allocated funds for about $70 billion in projects over the coming 10 years, it is estimated that there are billions of dollars in unfunded projects waiting in the wings.
Major highway projects travel on a long development conveyor belt from concept to ribbon cutting, often taking 15 years or more. One of the very important benefits of keeping the conveyor belt moving is the preservation of the experience and expertise of the construction and design personnel that actually deliver the wider, safer, smoother roads Texans need. And that is a huge deal because we drive some 540 million miles each day on Texas roads.
Vehicle travel is obviously evolving whether we are talking about ridesharing, electric vehicles, truck platooning, or autonomous vehicles. What does not change in any scenario as these technologies become more ingrained in our lives is the ongoing need for safe, efficient highways.
On the Texas-Mexico border, the movement of goods has increased from $111 billion in 1994 to $421 billion in 2019, which is expected to expand under the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The projected growth calls for additional investment to ensure safety and efficiency as commodities are transported through our roadways.
While Texas has made significant highway investments in recent years, it is also important that Congress act to address historic under-investment at the federal level, both with stimulus funding aimed at highways and with structural changes that commit more resources to transportation.
Yes, we face a coronavirus recession. That’s why committing to an uninterrupted program of priority highway improvements makes sense. Doing so will create jobs and will help Texas make a faster economic recovery. Additionally, it can have the benefit of creating major legacy transportation infrastructure projects that will provide economic benefits for generations to come.
Victor Boyer is chairman of Transportation Advocates of Texas and president of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition. Sergio Contreras is TAoT Regional Director for the Rio Grande Valley Region and President/CEO of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. Transportation Advocates of Texas is a statewide coalition that brings together cities, counties, established community and regional organizations and business interests to support additional funding to address the challenging mobility demands facing the state.