Texas' 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax hasn't changed since 1991. That's despite the erosion of the tax's purchasing power -- the Wall Street Journal estimates that the gas tax buys half as much concrete, steel, and other materials as they did 20 years ago -- and a glaring need -- the state comptroller's office estimates the $3 billion per year spent each year by the state will need to more than quadruple by 2030 to meet needs. TxDOT's executive director, Phil Wilson has said the agency needs an additional $4 billion per year right now for maintenance and new construction.
State Senator Kevin Eltife, a Republican from Tyler, thinks this means it's time for an increase. Yesterday, at the Texas Transportation Forum, he said the state should immediately tack on $.10 per gallon, then index the tax to inflation so the state won't face a gaping road funding shortfall in 20 years on the off chance that legislators are completely unwilling to support a tax increase.
That would bring in an extra $1.1 billion per year for highways, based on current fuel usage, and go some way toward bridging the widening funding gap. But ... a tax increase? In Texas? Proposed by a Republican?
"It is what it is," Eltife said, according to the Morning News. "I was fine before I got this job. If they kick me out of office, I'll be fine."
Courageous, but not unprecedented. A fuel tax increase has been floated before, often by Republicans. State Senator John Carona, Republican from Dallas, authored a 2009 bill. Last session Senator Steve Ogden, a Bryan Republican, proposed putting a constitutional amendment before voters, who would decide whether to add a nickel to the gas tax.
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Both efforts failed in the face of staunch opposition from Governor Rick Perry and other lawmakers.
Little seems to have changed on that front. Sharing the stage with Eltife at the Texas Transportation Forum, Sherman Republican Representative Larry Phillips, who chairs the House Transportation Chairman, said a gas tax increase "is not my favorite choice" because it will decline as fuel efficiency inevitably improves.
That's true as far as it goes, but there don't seem to be many realistic options for addressing the state's transportation needs. Taxing electric cars won't do it. There are too few, and it seems that the state should be promoting, not discouraging, fuel-efficiency.
Long-term, the solution might be some form of tax based on the number of vehicle-miles driven, so that electric cars bear some of the cost for driving on state roads. Such a measure was proposed last session. It got nowhere.