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Economic boom pounds Texas’ roads

By Matthew Waller | San Angelo Standard-Times (San Angelo, Texas)

SAN ANGELO, Texas — AUSTIN — The state is in a precarious place when it comes to its transportation, and the continual improvements to fuel economy are a blessing and a curse for Texas roads.

A Senate committee met last week and one expert talked about the conundrum of keeping up with transportation in Texas in general: Texas is booming, and that boom means a strain on roads, yet good roads are vital to a good economy.

“We’re afflicted with economic prosperity, in some sense,” said Tim Lomax, of the Texas A&M Texas Transportation Instituted.

While roads have enough pressure with more than 1,000 people a day coming to Texas and massive oil and gas development bringing heavy trucks to areas such as the Permian Basin and the Eagle Ford Shale, Texas roads have yet another problem: higher gas mileage.

Texas’ state gas tax, in concert with the federal gas tax, makes up half of the Texas Department of Transportation’s budget.

Already transportation officials have said Texas needs $4 billion to $5 billion more each year to help pay for congestion and maintenance.

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“Transportation planning requires a reliable funding stream in order to plan, develop, build and maintain the roads of Texas,” State Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, wrote in a column last year. “Unfortunately, transportation planners are limited by the existing dedicated revenues to transportation stagnating as fuel efficiency gains and the cost of construction have reduced the buying power of those dollars, outpacing both population and inflation growth.”

There aren’t many signs that this could let up. Companies such as Tesla, a maker of luxury electric vehicles, recently decided to share its patents to spur the growth of the electric vehicle industry, for example. Darby’s answer was to propose to increase registration fees, although that solution was politically untenable. Now lawmakers are thinking of rearranging the budget structure to get more money to transportation.

Russ Keene with Plug-In Texas, an advocacy group and coalition of companies in support of electric vehicles, said his organization would support some type of fee or charge that would allow owners of electric vehicles to support the state road system.

He said he wanted to make sure the fee takes into account that the average light vehicle would pay about $110 a year in gas taxes, and that the consumer is already paying taxes on electricity, is producing less emissions, and doesn’t travel as far so as to put as much wear and tear on the road.

At this point Plug-In Texas doesn’t have a number in mind, Keene said.

Earlier, the group didn’t want a fee; it didn’t want to create a disincentive for a new technology. Now however, Keene said the group believes the cars have proliferated enough to possibly justify a fee.

“We are hoping that the Legislature in 2015 will develop an equitable fee so that electric vehicles can have to pay their share,” Keene said.

David Ellis, a research scientist with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, said the effect of electric vehicles is negligible, although fleets of trucks that are running on natural gas might have an impact on diesel fuel tax collection.

The fuel efficiency of vehicles is among the biggest factors, he said, although that gets offset by the number of cars coming to Texas.

“The biggest impact in all this is the fact that most people don’t grasp the notion that the fuel tax is a tax on a gallon of gasoline or a gallon of diesel,” Ellis said.

The 20 cents a gallon stays the same and doesn’t account for inflation the way that sales tax does, he said.

“Every year the purchasing power is eroded away,” Ellis said.