Uresti & Hegar: Transportation infrastructure funding should include county roads

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State lawmakers have turned their attention to transportation needs in the 83rd Legislative Session, and there are many needs to be addressed. For this editorial, Democrat Senator Carlos Uresti Uresti teams up with Republican Senator Glenn Hegar to make the case for county roads that are taking a beating from oil patch trucks in and around the Eagle Ford Shale and other production areas. They hold that maintaining county roads is necessary to help sustain the promise brought by Texas' modern day oil boom, and the state should do its part to help.

Google recently brought its self-driving car to the Capitol and gave lawmakers and state transportation officials a spin into the future. But although the hybrid Lexus is packed with technology that lets it maneuver without a human behind the wheel, it can't go anywhere without roads.

Multi-lane urban expressways, interstate highways and state and county roads are just as important to our freedom of mobility as the vehicles we drive, or someday, may drive us! That's why one of our top priorities for the 83rd Legislature is transportation infrastructure.

Texas has done a good job at building and maintaining its highway system. According to a report by the Reason Foundation, we increased transportation spending per mile by 174 percent over the last 20 years, more than any other state. The study, reported by the Dallas Morning News,  cited improvement in all major categories,  except the number of rural primary roads considered too narrow.

Rural and county roads present a problem all their own – particularly in energy producing regions – and it's not just because they're narrow. Over the last several years, large oil patch trucks have pummeled county roads that were built for cars, pickup trucks, and farm equipment.  County roads in the Eagle Ford Shale, Barnett Shale, and Permian Basin regions are deteriorating under the wheels of these heavy trucks, and counties need help with maintenance and repair.

The Texas Department of Transportation says it needs an additional $4 billion a year to expand and maintain Texas' highway system. Unfortunately, only about $6 million of TxDOT's biennial budget is dedicated to county roads, while there is currently a demonstrated need of more than $700 million. Most Texans have never driven on a county road, few of which are even paved. But because of their importance to agriculture and the energy industry, we must take better  care of them.

The day after Google's driverless car was put on display in Austin, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas said that Texas' booming energy industry is helping the Texas economy grow faster than that of the nation. He told the San Antonio Express-News that petroleum jobs helped put Texas at No. 3 in terms of job growth. Only North Dakota, No. 1; and Utah, No. 2, are growing faster, thanks to their own shale plays.

Because of the great benefits the oil boom is bringing to working Texas families, counties, and communities, and because of what it means to our economy and the freedom granted by mobility, we must plan carefully for the future. We don't want to kill the golden goose that has brought so much prosperity, and that means taking care of our roads.

Exactly how we acknowledge, quantify, and ultimately fix the damage to our roadways is the million-dollar question – or more accurately, many, many millions – that the Legislature must now answer. The mechanics of this complex equation are still being debated. One approach contemplates the use of rainy day funds, while another would alter property tax calculations in recognition of the explosive growth in shale plays across the state. Either way, we are determined to bring forth a solution to the unwelcome and very significant safety and structural issues that Texas' 21st Century oil boom has brought to our great state.

The Legislature has a rare opportunity this session to address all of our transportation infrastructure needs – from the widest superhighways to dusty caliche roads. Fortunately, there is a growing bipartisan consensus that we must make this investment.

There are many roads to the future, and we have to maintain them if we're going to get there.


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