Jeff Collins serves as executive vice president of public infrastructure for LJA Engineering—a statewide engineering and consultation firm—and has a breadth of knowledge concerning transportation issues and mobility needs in Texas.
Collins has worked in urban and rural environments on transportation projects from designs to construction. With more than 30 years of experience in engineering, design and operations management on projects ranging from transportation to water, he has become established as an authority on transportation issues and funding needs.
Collins obtained his bachelor's in civil engineering from Texas A&M. He now serves on the LJA Engineering board of directors and previously served as vice president of transportation. Before joining LJA Engineering, Collins served as a founding member and principal of WSBC Civil Engineering Inc., a Texas-based engineering and design firm.
When legislators in Austin entered their third special session in late July to decide the future of transportation funding in Texas, Collins remained heavily involved at the capitol along with the Cy–Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce transportation committee and several statewide groups such as the Transportation Advocacy Group and Texas Future—a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to supporting solutions to the transportation infrastructure crisis facing the state.
What has led to the transportation funding crisis in Texas?
The majority of transportation funding comes from user fees such as fuel taxes and registration fees. State and federal fuel fees have not changed in more than 20 years, and our registration fee rates rank 41st in the country. We do have a lot more cars on the road, but fuel tax revenues are flat because those cars are getting much better gas mileage. Highway construction costs are much higher than 20 years ago—it now costs $1 billion a year just to maintain our highways. Additionally, the state has borrowed billions to keep construction going, but our debt service is now double what we are having to spend for additional highway capacity. This all adds up to create a highway funding shortfall between $4–$5 billion a year.
What needs to be done to build the state's credit and obtain the funding needed?
I do not believe the economic stabilization, or rainy day fund, is a good way to fund transportation since it is the reserve fund for when times are not so good in the state. It can also be very inconsistent, which is not beneficial for highway projects taking many years to develop. How the actual legislation is structured will affect the amount that can be used for highways. This certainly is not a long-term fix for funding, as the bills currently being discussed only gets us about 20 percent of what we need. I can see using this money to repair roads damaged during oil and gas drilling, since money from this fund is generated from oil and gas tax revenue. The state is lucky to have an exploration boom occurring from the shale plays, but on the negative side TxDOT estimates they need $1 billion a year to rehabilitate and repair roads damaged from this activity.
How does Cy–Fair compare to other areas in terms of mobility needs?
Cy–Fair is similar to other areas, as most have more mobility needs than current funding can handle. TxDOT and the Harris County Toll Road Authority have done a good job partnering on Hwy. 290 to get construction started, advancing some of that highway by 20 years from when originally scheduled. Unfortunately, funding constraints keep us from building the ultimate improvements planned for the Hwy. 290 corridor. We will be getting more capacity than the existing highway provides, but no one knows when funding for the rest of the work will be available. I expect the Cy–Fair area to experience incredible growth in the coming years because of new development driven by completion of the Hwy. 290 expansion, the Grand Parkway and the Hwy. 249 toll road. This growth is exciting, as most of these projects will be completed in 2015. This growth will bring more cars and trucks, and before you know it we will need to look at the ultimate Hwy. 290 improvements, but unless we start funding highways adequately, there will be none available. We don't want all our roads to be toll roads.
How did you get involved with TAG and Texas Future, and can you describe the importance of these organizations?
I have been involved in transportation for more than 30 years, so I know how good highway systems lead to a prospering economy and better quality of life. I missed many of my kid's school and sporting events because of the parking lot that Hwy. 290 sometimes becomes. I have seen the funding systems for roads erode over time and have observed our legislature not having the political will to raise fees for users of our highways. The next few years will be a crisis if we don't do something soon. There were other like-minded businesses out there that saw this problem and coalesced to form these organizations to educate the public and our legislators about these issues. The focus for TAG is on the Houston region, while Texas Future is statewide.
Can you comment on the recent legislation passed by the Texas House and Senate?
I am glad SJR 1 passed, which hopefully will provide some funding for our heavily indebted highway system. The funding still must be approved by voters in a constitutional amendment election in November 2014. It is estimated that $1.2 billion would be transferred at the end of 2014 and a similar amount at the end of 2015. This funding increase is still less than 25 percent of what we need and it is not a reliable pay as you go revenue stream. Currently, this money goes to the Rainy Day Fund. We have now maxed out our credit card, so the next legislature will need to find a way to fund the additional $3 billion a year needed for transportation. We need to let our legislators know we will support them to get our transportation funding crisis solved.