DALLAS - Top state legislative leaders are urging the Texas Department of Transportation to tap the bond market with $1.5 billion of debt backed by the state's gasoline tax to help reduce a growing backlog of highway projects.
In a letter signed by Lieut. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Tom Craddick, Senate Finance Committee chairman Steve Ogden, and House Appropriations Committee chairman Warren Chissum, the legislative leaders ask TxDOT to use the bonding authority approved in the 2007 legislative session that ended last May.
"We took the first step to address this concern by appropriating $300 million of general revenue in the current General Appropriations Act to offset the cost of debt service, and Comptroller Susan Combs certified that this revenue is available to you," the letter said. "This action will allow transportation construction to return to reasonable levels in the short term, but this is just the beginning of the conversation."
Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican like all the signers of the letter, said he disagrees with the proposal to borrow as a stopgap measure. The state needs a long-term solution to its highway funding before it borrows more money, the governor's office said.
The letter from legislative leaders, dated Feb. 28, was made public a month after a special joint committee hearing of the Legislature, at which Texas Transportation Committee chairwoman Hope Andrade, TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz, and the department's chief financial officer, James Bass, explained the agency's financial straits and corrective action taken after a $1 billion overestimate of revenue available for projects last year.
Members of transportation and finance committees said they took offense at TxDOT statements indicating that the Legislature had failed to provide adequate funding for the state's transportation needs.
After the hearing, Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Craddick sent a letter to state auditor John Keel seeking a comprehensive review of the "entire financial process of TxDOT."
The audit comes as the agency is preparing for its sunset hearings, a lengthy process through which the department must demonstrate that its continued existence is necessary.
Andrade - who was named chairwoman after the death of powerful and controversial chairman Ric Williamson in December - is offering a more conciliatory tone in an effort to mend fences with lawmakers. Williamson, a close political associate of Perry, championed the use of private developers of toll projects as an alternative to tax-funded highway projects.
With resistance growing to long-term private leasing and operation of major highways in the state, lawmakers last year imposed a two-year moratorium on any new concessions to private tollway developers.
Williamson and Perry often cited diminishing federal highway funds, declining gas taxes and construction inflation as the source of a gap between the state's growing transportation needs and available funds.
But state legislators said they have provided bond financing that TxDOT has not used.
The Legislature last year authorized the department to borrow up to $6 billion against the gas tax, but it has issued only $2.9 billion, citing slowing revenue to support debt service.
The state budget for the 2008-09 biennium diverts almost $1.6 billion from gas taxes and vehicle fees for agencies other than TxDOT, a diversion the legislative leaders promised in their letter to correct.