Texas is growing — fast. So how is the state going to accommodate its new citizens? As of this week, through transportation infrastructure.
On Nov. 3, Texas voters passed a ballot measure, Proposition 7, in a landslide of more than 80 percent approval, paving the way for the state’s highway fund to grow substantially in the next several years.
Beginning in fiscal year 2018, $2.5 billion of Texas’ sales and use tax — only allocated if those revenues exceed $28 billion — will go toward the fund, which will provide money for building, maintaining and improving non-tolled infrastructure. The ballot measure uses a similar mechanism for siphoning money from motor vehicle sale and rental taxes starting in fiscal year 2020: After those revenues exceed $5 billion, 35 percent of whatever remains will go to the highway fund.
According to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, both sources of funding are already close to reaching the thresholds that trigger contributions to the highway fund under Proposition 7. Sales tax revenue stood at $27.4 billion in the 2014 fiscal year, while motor vehicle sales and rental tax brought in $4.2 billion.
The projects funded through the new revenue will help curtail congestion, make roads safer and improve maintenance, state officials said in a Wednesday statement.
“Texans want and deserve a safe, first-class highway system,” State Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols said in the press release. “Voters have made an investment in our state’s economic future by supporting Proposition 7 and ensuring our state’s highway system will be able to keep up with our increasing population and booming economy. With this funding, [the Department of Transportation] will have a predictable revenue stream with which they will be able to implement long-range transportation plans for our state.”
He’s not kidding about the population growth — Texas added nearly half a million people from July 2013 to July 2014, more than any other state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It already has close to 27 million residents, which makes it the second largest state after California.
And like California, Texas has a lot of land and is much more car-based than smaller, more densely populated eastern states. In urban areas there are congestion problems. According to the state DOT, drivers on a heavily trafficked corridor of Interstate 35 in the state capital experience more than 975,000 hours of annual delay per mile. During rush hour, it takes about 2.5 times as long to get through that corridor than it does when traffic flows freely.
The 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard from Texas A&M University ranked the Houston and Dallas areas as having the eighth- and ninth-worst congestion in the country, respectively.
Congestion is a problem on many levels. The report stresses that traffic delays cost money — not just from the fuel wasted while cars sit idling on the highway, but in the sense that they cause drivers to miss out on or delay economic opportunity. Congestion means people will miss meetings and shipped orders won’t be delivered when customers need them.
Clusters of idling automobiles also spew out polluting gases that can worsen air quality, which in turn is linked with respiratory problems.
The influx of money for transportation projects aimed at addressing those issues could be significant in terms of the state’s normal funding levels. According to the comptroller’s office, the highway fund received about $8.5 billion in revenue — including federal money — in the 2014 fiscal year. So the $2.5 billion contribution from sales and use tax alone would be a funding increase of almost 30 percent.