John Carona Talks Gas Tax, Upcoming Elections at D Magazine HQ

Periodically, we invite interesting people to come speak to our staff about interesting topics as part of the Brown Bag Series of lunchtime talks we started when we moved into the new building in October. (So far, those interesting people have included the Dallas Museum of Art’s Charlie Wylie and aerial photographer/more than I can list here Bobby Haas.) Yesterday, as part of the series, State Senator John Carona and Dallas County Republican Party chairman Jonathan Neerman paid a visit to our office. Their visit was timed to Carona’s appearance on our March cover. A few notes on the discussion, moderated by Wick, after the jump.

— The cover story: Wick asked if there had been any blow-back from party members, as you would expect from a story titled “The Last Republican.” Wick mentioned that State Rep. Dan Branch, for one, had taken issue with it. Carona said he hadn’t really experienced any negative reaction — “Most people just want to know how they got me to sit so still on the elephant” — but added with a laugh that Branch probably wouldn’t have had any problems if he were up there with him, on the back of the elephant. Neerman said that his office hadn’t taken any angry calls. But, he said, anyone who might have had a problem with it doesn’t like him, either, and likely wouldn’t have bothered calling.

— Gas tax: This was the real meat of the discussion. Carona, as he did in Wick’s story, pointed out that there is no money for new road construction and, with the population of North Texas (well, he said “Metroplex,” but that’s a fake word) continuing to grow, there is a need for new road construction. We will see gridlock the likes of which has never been experienced here or in Houston, he said. The Lege’s answer, since they are averse to any sort of across-the-board tax, is toll roads. Which, he said, does nothing to put money in the road construction fund.

The other problem with that, Carona said, is that toll roads are still a tax — since in the near future, everyone will have to use a toll road at some point — and it’s an expensive one. A modest hike of the 20¢ gas tax (he is only interested in raising it by a dime) would cost the average citizen around $100 per year, or about $8 per month. Our toll-road future, on the other hand, will cost some people as much as $8 per day, and others even more. (The managed lanes on LBJ, for instance, will fluctuate throughout the day — heavy users of that could be looking at something more like $12 per day.) But special interests keep pushing toll roads.

— Another problem with toll roads: until recently, private developers of the road were allowed to sign 70-year contracts to build and collect revenue on the roads. The Lege now has it knocked down to 50 years, but Carona wishes it were something more reasonable, like 30 years. No dice, so far.

— The week’s primaries: Neerman said that Republican turnout was a record high, more than three times what they saw in 2008, and certainly a surprise for an off-year election. But both he and Neerman cautioned their colleagues and party members not to rest easy on those numbers. They said they won’t know until the general election if Texas is suffering from “Rick Perry fatigue” and that it is way too soon to count Democrat Bill White out of things, since he is beloved in Houston by both parties and is pro-business. They also said no one goes to the polls to vote on judges races, and I think we can all agree with that.

It was a thought-provoking talk that I’m sure I mis-characterized in some way. But Glenn was there, so I’ll bet he can fill in any blanks. Or we can immediately forget about the talk and have it out about the gas tax, Obama, or whatever in the comments. We could maybe even do both.

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