Collin County, city leaders seek more road funding

In Collin County, US 75 is one of the major highways on the Texas Department of Transportation's list for reconstruction. Four widening projects that total nearly $300 million are



underway.



However, finding money to fund road projects like US 75 has proven challenging for state and local officials. TxDOT officials have said the agency needs about $5 billion annually to maintain the state's existing roadways.



The explosive growth in the North Texas region and the lack of state transportation funding has left the county scrambling to fund needed road projects, Collin County Judge Keith Self said.



One solution from the North Central Texas Council of Government's Regional Transportation Council to fund roadways and ease congestion has been to toll HOV lanes or new lanes on existing roadways, said Michael Morris, NCTCOG director of transportation.



But Collin County residents are opposed to



additional tolls in an area with several major toll roads, said state Rep. Jeff Leach, whose district



covers part of Plano.



"There is a palpable sense of toll fatigue in Collin County, specifically in my district," he said.



Until a higher percentage of the state budget goes toward road funding, Collin County and the North Texas region will likely continue a toll-funding model to pay for road projects, said Duncan Webb, Collin County Precinct 4 commissioner.



"I hate to say it, but the toll road model is the only way to handle congestion if there's no additional funding coming out of the state," he said.



The city of Plano and the Collin County Commissioners Court have pinpointed transportation funding as a priority for the upcoming 84th Legislative Session beginning in January.



The project that would toll HOV lanes on US 75 is on hold until May, after the regular legislative



session, to see if state legislators can find more money for transportation, Morris said.



Officials said they hope the Legislature will work to increase state road funding to avoid adding more tolls or using county reserves to fund road projects.



"I think it's a fear that the state won't come to grips with this lack of transportation funding," Self said. "If that's the case, how do we build billions of dollars of necessary highways?"



Road funding issues



Over the past several decades, the percentage of the state budget dedicated to road funding has decreased from about 33 percent to about 9 percent today, Self said.



Insufficient revenue from state fuel taxes—the taxes included in the price of gasoline and diesel fuel—has contributed to the decreased transportation budget, according to a report from the 2030 Committee, which was formed by the Texas Transportation Commission chair to assess the state's infrastructure and mobility needs to the year 2030. The decrease in revenue is caused by a lack of increase in the gas tax since 1991 and drivers using more fuel-efficient vehicles, according to the report.



The passage of Proposition 1 in the Nov. 4 Elections amends the Texas Constitution to divert some taxes paid by state oil and gas companies to the State Highway Fund. The proposition is expected to bring in $1.7 billion in its first year. The Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, is responsible for distributing Proposition 1 funds.



However, before Proposition 1 can be implemented, the Legislature must first appropriate the funds using TxDOT guidelines, TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said.



The Proposition 1 Stakeholder Committee, of which Self was a member, has made initial recommendations to the TTC on how to distribute the funds.



Local solutions



Toll roads and toll lanes on state and federal roads have been a remedy to fund road projects in the region for at least the past two decades, said Webb, an RTC member.



"Until Proposition 1 passed, there's been no funding for congestion mitigation, i.e., expansion," he said. "Therefore, the only way to build anything was to borrow the money and use tolls to pay it back since the state wasn't going to fund it."



To keep up with a growing county and reduced budget, the RTC decided in the 1990s to make any new highway a tolled road, Morris said.



Because of opposition to more toll roads from residents, the Collin County Commissioners Court has searched for ways to help fund state and federal roads in the county, though those roads are the responsibility of the state. For instance, the court committed $50 million of the county's reserves to go toward US 75 if needed.



"The $50 million is simply our statement that we're going to participate in keeping tolls off of US 75. But even that statement is not enough," Self said



A push for change



Leach said the state has the revenue to fund its roadways, but the Legislature needs to dedicate the money to transportation funding.



Leach has determined three ways the state could devote more funds to transportation: stopping diversions from the State Mobility Fund, dedicating some of the motor vehicle sales tax to the SHF and dedicating a larger percentage of the general revenue to the state's transportation fund.



"We say transportation is a priority," he said. "It ought to be a priority in our budgeting process. It ought to be a priority when it comes to our appropriations of the state budget."



Leach has a bill at the ready for the upcoming legislative session that would put half of the motor vehicle sales tax into the SHF. He said other legislators have similar bills.



Self said many of the newly elected politicians have enthusiasm this session to solve Texas' road funding shortage.



"Transportation truly is an investment in the growth," Self said. "You cannot move commerce and community without transportation infrastructure. So it truly is an investment in the growth of this state, and everything else flows from that."



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