GOP candidates and highway funds: Where's the exit?

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by BRAD WATSON / WFAA-TV

wfaa.com

Posted on February 25, 2010 at 11:10 PM

Updated Friday, Feb 26 at 12:17 AM

As if drivers needed any further confirmation that traffic is bad, a new study just ranked North Texas as the fifth most congested metro area in the nation.

If there's a problem that affects everyone nearly every day that cries out for state leadership, building new highways and how to pay for them qualifies.  But the Republican candidates for governor are not offering bold solutions.

Angry voters wanting less government are stuck on the issue of highway funding. They're also stuck in traffic and with a state government they need to build new roads -- but a state government that is running out of money.

Inflation has eaten away at the 20 cent a gallon gasoline tax set in 1991 that's the primary way to pay for highways.

But raising the gasoline tariff is off the table as an option for the GOP candidates for governor.

At the Belo Debate in Dallas last month, Gov Rick Perry said: “I'm against a gas tax; let me go on the record of saying that very clearly.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison echoes that sentiment:  “There would never be a tax increase without an election of the people.”

Debra Medina says Texas should keep federal gas taxes collected here.  “We need to exercise state sovereignty. We need to say to Washington D.C. those are Texas fuel tax dollars.”

But that idea is dead, since Hutchison filed a bill in Congress to do that -- and it went nowhere.

The scorecard on raising the gas tax: Perry, Hutchison and Medina all say "no."

The Republicans all say "yes" to ending the diversion of a billion dollars in gas tax money to pay for the Texas Department of Public Safety and other spending, but lawmakers have shown no taste for that.

As gasoline tax money dwindles, the state's gone deeper into voter-approved debt to build highways. But that has limits.

The third way to relieve congestion is building toll roads. Hutchison supports that option.  “I think you can use toll roads effectively,” she said.

Perry also endorses more toll roads.  “I think private sector involvement and building new roads are going to probably take the tolls to build them.”

Only Medina is against all toll roads.

So the scorecard: Hutchison and Perry want toll roads. Medina does not.

There's always a risk talking taxes and specifics in politics, but time is running out for solutions. The Texas Department of Transportation says money for new highway construction runs out in 2012.

E-mail bwatson@wfaa.com

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