Now that House and Senate budget writers have tentatively agreed to fund $2 billion for water projects — a top legislative priority — they must spend the precious little time remaining in the session to address another big ticket item: funding for state and county roads.
The Texas Department of Transportation needs an additional $4 billion a year just to keep up with current levels of traffic congestion on state roads, and oil boom counties in South and West Texas need money to repair and maintain battered county roads.
My top priority of the session has been to craft a solution for county roads. Numerous meetings with oil and gas industry representatives, TxDOT, county officials, and other stakeholders resulted in SB 1747, which will create County Transportation Reinvestment Zones.
By establishing such zones, counties could use increased revenues from county property and sales taxes to repair and maintain roads that are disintegrating under the wheels of heavy oil patch trucks in the Eagle Ford Shale and Permian Basin regions.
Another source of funding would be provided in HB 1025, a supplemental appropriations bill that sets aside $55 million for energy roads.
If they pass, SB 1747 and HB 1025 would be the only bills that would provide new sources of revenue for county roads, but together they are not enough to address all the counties' needs. The Legislature can do more, and there's still time to get something done.
House Energy Resources Chairman Jim Keffer, the House sponsor of SB 1747, said he is hopeful that $500 million can be identified for county roads.
It is somewhat ironic that energy roads are being neglected in a legislative session that has found extra money for water projects, public education, and other crucial programs — thanks in large part to the taxes paid by the energy industry.
James LeBas, a fiscal consultant who also works for the Texas Oil and Gas Association, recently told the Texas Tribune that oil and gas interests paid about $12 billion in taxes in fiscal 2012, up from $9.25 billion in 2011 and $7.4 billion in 2010.
And the end of the boom is not in sight. Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman said earlier this year that oil production in Texas could roughly double to 3 million barrels per day by 2020, which he called "OPEC-like numbers."
I've been repeating a simple mantra since the session began: Let's not kill the goose that laid the golden egg. That could happen if the state continues to neglect county roads, which serve as gateways to the oil patch. Fortunately, there is time left in the session to find more money for these roads.