Diverting Highway Funds to non-Road Uses

By Terri Hall l November 29, 2011

Texas Senators Steve Ogden and Tommy Williams recently made a very public proposal to increase the vehicle registration fee by $50 (nearly doubling it) in order to pay for roads. In a state supposedly run by fiscally responsible ‘conservatives,’ the proposal is as bold as it is politically risky.

Now as a matter of discussion, raising the vehicle registration fee $50 is certainly preferable to a 10-20 cent per gallon gas tax hike ($100-200/yr depending on fuel efficiency and miles driven), and far more preferable to tolls ($2,000-$3,000/yr or more). However, why should Texans pay a penny more in these additional road taxes when the Legislature continues to divert BILLIONS in gas tax revenues to non-road purposes ($1 billion/yr)? Ditto for the vehicle sales tax that gets dumped into general revenue to fund general government rather than to fund roads ($2-$3 billion/yr). The federal highway program is also plagued with diverting highway funds to non-road uses.

These are huge sums of money that we already pay in taxes that are NOT going to fund roads, yet rather than END diversions and dedicate the road taxes already collected to build and maintain highways, once again, politicians would rather lobby for a tax hike. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates the proposed $50/yr vehicle registration hike would raise $1.2 billion/yr, roughly the same amount the Legislature diverts in gas taxes annually.

It’d be one thing if this new tax would actually go to building free roads and not more toll roads, but the pattern of the Texas Legislature, our governor who signs these bills into law, TxDOT, and the toll agencies, has been to use EVERY available pot of money to subsidize yet more toll projects, not free roads (ie – Prop 14, Prop 12, stimulus funds, gas taxes, etc.). So taxpayers get hit with a double or triple whammy. As if that’s not bad enough, Williams and Ogden propose borrowing against this tax increase to boot. More debt, when they’ve sunk us into $31 billion in road debt already, is a sure recipe for a fiscal disaster.

So it’s a shell game and the taxpayers are the chumps — lawmakers impose a tax, lawmakers steal from that tax to spend on things not intended for that tax, lawmakers claim there’s not enough money to fix our roads without tax hikes, then they propose to increase taxes to raise the same amount they stole in the first place!

In an article in the Austin American Statesman, Ogden even said if voters reject this idea, then they had better get used to sitting in traffic. One can continue that line of thinking to also say — get used to paying tolls. So it’s their way or a gridlocked highway.

On the federal level, we’re headed down a similar path — there’s no will in Congress to end diversions or to responsibly raise the gas tax – like indexing – a far cheaper way to pay for roads than TOLLS. So, that leaves us with yet more toll roads, even selling off our public infrastructure to private corporations that charge motorists punitively high tolls rates (75 cents per mile in Texas & toll rates doubled on the Indiana Toll Road once it was privatized) — the MOST expensive way to fund roads.

To the politicians of both political parties it’s the path of least resistance, even though it’s also the most expensive for the taxpayer. They can outsource the tax hikes to a private corporation and let them take the heat, while our politicians laugh all the way to the bank — with OUR money!

Taxpayers need to remind these politicians who’s in charge and whose wallets they wish to raid to bailout their fiscal irresponsibility, blame shifting, and failure to insist on keeping an affordable, freely accessible public highway system for ALL Americans, regardless of income or status.

Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of eight turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.