Texas: Downgrading paved roads to gravel and planning license plate surveillance cameras

In a state like Texas so rich in resources, with surpluses and so much going for it, it’s astounding that it can’t get its act together enough to maintain our road system. Downgrading 83 miles of roadways from paved to gravel in the rural areas hard hit by oil exploration is an insult and reflects poorly on our state. Now, the TX Department of Public Safety is lobbying for license plate cameras!

By Terri Hall | October 18, 2013

It’s dog eat dog as the fight over scarce road money gets uglier in Texas. At a recent Senate Select Committee on Transportation Funding hearing, the Senate Transportation Committee Chair Robert Nichols took issue with DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler’s comments that urban areas of the state are ‘pillaging’ road funds he believes are largely being provided by rural areas where the oil shale boom has swelled the state’s coffers of oil and gas severance taxes to windfall levels.

Nichols was quick to point out that eighty percent of all transportation dollars come from urban areas of the state and that urban areas, in fact, subsidize the rural areas, not the other way around. Fowler quickly retreated, but it reveals a very deep divide shaping up around the state as tax revenues pour in from rural areas, yet fail to solve the perpetual road funding shortage.

The biggest development, a surprise to many, was the Select Committee Chairman (also Senate Finance Committee Chair), Tommy Williams’, seemingly unilateral decision to allocate the $250 million in surplus vehicle registration fees (above the forecasted amount) to energy sector roads, largely deflating the rising tension in the room. But this new money still won’t address the 83 miles of proposed roadways slated to be converted to gravel by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) in the rural areas hard hit by oil exploration. And it still doesn’t solve the long-term road funding crisis or the long-standing urban-rural divide, where rural areas believe they lack sufficient representation for the land mass they represent compared with the more populous and heavily congested urban areas of the state that they feel carry all the votes and clout, and hence the dollars follow.

It’s no secret that the oil shale boom has produced not only a boost in state tax revenues, but also exponential damage to Texas roads, particularly county and farm-to-market roads that aren’t designed to handle the heavy weight of 18-wheelers loaded up with water for fracking and/or oil being delivered to market. TxDOT recently announced its plans to downgrade many of these paved roads being pulverized by heavyweight trucks back to gravel, igniting the ire of many rural communities. So the committee heard testimony from TxDOT about its decision that caught many lawmakers off-guard, and from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) about overweight permits and the challenges with enforcement.

DPS Director Steve McGraw confessed the Department only has 12 full-time officers policing that area of the state, and since they lack the resources to hire more officers, they handle enforcement through what he dubs ‘surge operations.’ Surge operations involve taking officers from other parts of the state and reassign them to these shale areas for temporary boosts in enforcement. The problem areas are enforcing speed and weight limits. DPS did about 53 surge operations last year and have done approximately 75 this year. DPS also taps some local law enforcement partners who are trained to enforce commercial vehicles.

The DMV gave the Committee a report on the overweight truck permits it issues and noted that some of these penalty collections are being dumped into General Revenue, not going to roads. This touches on an unresolved issue with taxpayers. Huge sums of public money related to transportation and road repair are collected that aren’t getting allocated to roads. Whether it’s the vehicle sales tax, the tax on auto parts and tires, or overweight truck penalties, it all adds up to more than $3 billion a year in diverted funds. It begs the question, would we even be discussing downgrading paved roads to gravel if these funds were going to roads as they should be? Likely not.

Add to that the twenty-five percent of gas tax revenues diverted to public education (which amounts to approximately $750 million a year) and the non-education diversions from the gas tax (approximately $650-$750 million a year) to non-road purposes, and it amounts to pure theft of road funds. Clearly, there’s not a revenue problem, as lawmakers prefer to call it, it’s a spending and priority problem. Let’s not forget that Texas lawmakers spent 26% more this biennium than last and that it frittered away an $8 billion surplus in revenues that they enjoyed coming into the 83rd legislative session that began in January.

The Texas Governor, Lt. Governor and Speaker all promised to make water and transportation infrastructure a priority in the 83rd and neither was addressed in the base budget. Instead, lawmakers chose to punt by tapping the state’s emergency fund known as the Rainy Day Fund (capitalized with the oil and gas severance tax) and kick the decision down to the voters to give them permission to raid the emergency fund, and in the case of water, issue more debt, rather than discipline the use of existing taxes to fund priorities out of the regular budget. They’re not giving voters that choice – the only choice before voters is to raid the Rainy Day Fund or they get nothing more to fund these core functions of government we all need for daily living.

Big government surveillance state – Round II

Another surprise that surfaced at the committee hearing was the DPS’s lobbying for a license plate camera program to detect overweight trucks, while the carriers are in motion (versus inspection and weigh stations). Williams quickly bristled at the suggestion saying he still has scars on his back from carrying such a bill in 2011 for which grassroots groups accused him of Gestapo-style checkpoints, constitutional-rights busting surveillance and awarded him with a certificate for being a good Nazi.

Yet within minutes, Williams requested a comprehensive study from the Texas Transportation Institute as to how the legislature could implement such a program through DPS, not only citing the benefit of detecting overweight trucks, but also of checking for car insurance on all vehicles. We all know from other states’ experience that the surveillance and government uses won’t stop there – speeding tickets and other violations will soon follow criminalizing ordinary citizens for going about their daily lives.

A trucking industry representative invited to testify also lobbied for the license plate camera/tracking program. So expect the industry to line-up behind big government Orwellian lawmakers to push the legislation through next session. Williams even requested their help in ‘educating’ the public on the need for the program using the argument that there are hidden costs to taxpayers from uninsured drivers and overweight trucks not paying for permits. Well, there are also not so hidden threats to our freedoms and constitutional rights for government to track its citizens and go fishing for violations on every vehicle, not just those actually committing the violations.

The dialogue and study for long-term road funding solutions will continue in the interim, although these committees rarely accept public testimony or feedback. It’s only government bureaucrats, politicians, and special interests who have a seat at the table. Once they come up with their pre-determined game plan, they tap the special interests to fund slick PR campaigns to convince taxpayers to back ‘their’ plan or taxpayers get no solution (or relief). It’s the very sort of politics as usual that the junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, is working so hard to change in Washington. We sorely need his kind of leadership in Texas state government – and fast.

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 nine turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.