EL PASO -- Texans may have to pay more at the gas pump if they want new state highways.

Members of the Texas Senate's Transportation Committee said Tuesday that an increase in the 20-cents-per-gallon state fuel tax may be necessary to overcome a drastic shortage of money for new roads.

"We are in the critical position in this state where we are growing and will need more roads. But we have no money to build them and no more debt that we can issue," the committee's chairman, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said during a meeting in El Paso.

"The fuel tax has been the same since 1991, and that's frankly one of the best solutions to the funding shortage we have in our hands."

The state levies 20 cents for every gallon of gasoline that is pumped, and 15 of those cents go to the Texas Department of Transportation. In addition, motorists pay 18.4 cents per gallon in federal taxes.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said it was too early to mention precise figures when talking about how much he would like to increase the state tax.

Amadeo Saenz, executive director of the transportation department, said Texas drivers are not filling up their cars as often as they used to, and that hybrid cars are also reducing the amount of fuel taxes the state collects.

He said that if current gas trends continue -- and the Texas Legislature chooses not to change the fuel tax -- his department will have only enough money to maintain existing roads.

"We'd be able to finish the projects that have already been funded, but no new dollars for construction will come our way," Saenz said.

The Senate committee, along with its counterpart in the Texas House of Representatives, will begin scheduling meetings with key state lawmakers to push for a higher fuel tax.

Tax increases, though, are not the only solution the committees are backing.

Carona said new rules should be put in place to prevent the reallocation of funds away from transportation projects.

And state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, said municipalities and counties should be given the option of adding a temporary local fuel tax for new road construction in specific regions.

"TxDOT is flat broke. There's no way to pay unless the leadership identifies revenue to build new capacity," said Shapleigh, who sits on the Senate's transportation committee. "Whether it's gas tax or local option, the result should be that we have enough money to build roads in communities like El Paso."

According to a report published earlier this year by the consulting firm of Cambridge Systematics, Texas will be $256 billion short of meeting its transportation needs by 2050 if current funding formulas remain unchanged.

State lawmakers have said that figure is troublesome, especially because the population of the state continues to grow and should hit the 50 million mark within 40 years.

Some El Pasoans, though, said they were concerned that higher fuel taxes would mean higher gas prices.

"I mean, gas is already so expensive and to hit us there is just insane," said Robert Jimenez, a UTEP student, who was pumping gas at a station near the university. "Why can't they take money from the higher gas prices. Gas has gone up so much in the last two years. Where's that money going?"

Pickett said much of the revenue from higher gas prices was going to private companies, not the state.

"For 20 years, the fuel tax has been the same no matter what. The state is not making a killing on the higher gas prices," said Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. "No matter how much each gallon costs, we still get just 20 cents. That's why things need to change."

Pickett said bipartisan support exists for the tax increase, and that could make a campaign to pass it in the Legislature smoother.

Gustavo Reveles Acosta may be reached at greveles@elpasotimes.com; 546-6133.