November amendment aims to boost funding for transportation

November amendment aims to boost funding for transportationFor the second-straight legislative session, the Texas Department of Transportation is turning to Texas voters for approval of a major boost in transportation funding. Proposition 7 will be on ballots statewide Nov. 3, giving voters say over a constitutional amendment that would provide $2.5 billion annually to the State Highway Fund in 2018, an amount that could rise to nearly $3 billion by 2020.

Proposition 7 is tied to Senate Joint Resolution 5, which was authored by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. SJR 5 received bipartisan support in the Legislature, garnering a 28-2 approval in the Senate and a 142-1 approval in the House. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill June 1.

“I am very excited that the House, Senate and governor were able to come together on SJR 5, which is critical for the future of transportation in our state,” Nichols said. “If passed by the voters, it would be the largest single increase in transportation funding in Texas history.”

Heading into the 2013 legislative session, officials with TxDOT said maintaining congestion levels would require an additional $5 billion in funding annually. The biggest chunk of TxDOT’s $23 billion budget for the FY 2015-16 and FY 2016-17 biennium—39 percent, or roughly $9 billion—has been set aside for maintaining and replacing the existing system.

November amendment aims to boost funding for transportationIf approved by voters, SJR 5 would start redirecting $2.5 billion of general sales tax revenue annually to the highway fund starting Sept. 1, 2017. However, the money would only be redirected if sales tax revenue exceeds $28 billion annually.

In 2019 a portion of the motor vehicle sales tax revenue would also start being redirected to the SHF. After the first $5 billion in tax revenue is collected annually, 35 percent of the additional vehicle  sales tax revenue would go to the SHF. That 35 percent is expected to translate to roughly $500 million to $600 million for TxDOT in FY 2020-21, according to TxDOT estimates.

According to the proposition, the transferred funds could only be used to pay debt; purchase rights of way; and to build, maintain and rehabilitate nontolled public roads.

Escalating needs

Officials with TxDOT started applying pressure to lawmakers to address the department’s funding shortfall leading into the 2013 legislative session. In November 2014 voters passed Proposition 1 with 80 percent approval, funding transportation with an additional $1.7 billion annually from the State’s Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund.

Even with Proposition 1 approval, transportation funding still fell short of what was needed to keep up with demand and population growth, TxDOT Director of Media Relations Veronica Beyer said.

“As Texas grows by more than 1,000 people daily, we are seeing more congestion and therefore an increasing need to build, repair and maintain our roadways,” Beyer said. “Transportation is the backbone of economic prosperity, so we must do what we can to keep commerce and goods moving.”

Officials with Transportation Advocacy Group in Houston say they are still highly concerned about the lack of future transportation funding and have been supportive of Proposition 7.

“Prop. 1 was a good start, but it didn’t provide us with that long-term, reliable source of transportation funding TxDOT was asking for,” TAG Houston board member Jeff Collins said. “Now we’re seeing legislation that has the money in it. We’re seeing a genuine effort to address the problem.”

November amendment aims to boost funding for transportation

Local projects

Although no specific projects have been identified yet for Proposition 7, the distribution of Prop. 1 funding provides some insight into the selection process. The Texas Transportation Commission, the governing body that presides over TxDOT, decides which projects to fund based on conversations with local governments and metropolitan planning organizations. In February the TTC dedicated $278 million of the available $1.7 billion of Proposition 1 funds to Greater Houston-area projects.

TxDOT worked closely with the Houston-Galveston Area Council in determining which projects to fund, taking cues from H-GAC’s Transportation Improvement Program. H-GAC Transportation Director Alan Clark said that both H-GAC and TxDOT sought to advance projects that would bring the most benefits to traffic flow in the Houston area.

“[The H-GAC] did not have a detailed selection criteria for these projects, but we were guided by legislative direction and direction from [TxDOT] to advance projects that could be ready for construction to begin in 2015,” Clark said. “We looked to develop a list that fit within the funding available but also provided the best benefit to the Houston region.”

Earlier this year, TxDOT approved 12 previously unfunded transportation projects in the Greater Houston Area—six of which are in Montgomery and Harris counties—that will be funded this year as a result of Proposition 1. For Montgomery County, this includes widening FM 2978, which is expected to receive mobility improvements in late 2015 or early 2016.

H-GAC Program Manager David Wurdlow said the upcoming project would help alleviate the expected increase of traffic flow in The Woodlands area.

“Growth in the Greater Tomball-Magnolia-The Woodlands area is producing significant congestion, and additional Prop. 1 funds will ensure there is no gap in the widening of the FM 2978 corridor from two to four lanes,” H-GAC Program Manager David Wurdlow said. dditional reporting by Abigail Loop

By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.