Senator Jane Nelson
P.O. Box 12068, State Capitol
Austin, Texas 78711
Tel. (512) 463-0112
Fax (512) 463-0923

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 23, 2001
Contact: Dave Nelson
(512) 463-0112

WHEN IT COMES TO TRANSPORTATION, EVERY DOLLAR COUNTS
An op-ed article by Senator Nelson

Overcrowded freeways don't just rattle our nerves. They reduce our productivity, intrude upon our personal time, harm local businesses; slow emergency vehicles; and pose a serious, even deadly, public safety hazard.

For these and many other reasons, it should surprise no one that transportation is expected to take a front seat in the Texas Legislature this session.

It should, however, be a shock to learn that a traffic problem near you could have been resolved today had the previous Legislature not squandered $43 million in federal highway construction money.

That was the amount diverted by the federal government into restricted accounts that can only be used for alcohol awareness or other safety programs. Why? Because the Legislature did not pass federal DWI standards and a stronger open container law in 1999. Another $43 million will be diverted this October if these measures fail during the current legislative session.

That's about what it would cost to widen Loop 820 all the way from Interstate 35W to the DART rail line.

Texas cannot afford to stay in noncompliance with these federal standards. At current budget levels, the Texas Department of Transportation can allocate funding for 36 percent of transportation needs identified in Texas. Even projects fortunate enough to be slated for funding can remain on a waiting list for years before construction actually begins.

There is some good news on the transportation front. The state's chief financial officer recently released a performance review of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) that suggests ways Texas can increase the amount of funding available to improve our state highways.

The report from Comptroller Carol Keeton Rylander recommends several changes that would provide an estimated $1.1 billion in additional revenue for road construction and maintenance over the next two years without raising taxes. Recommendations include adopting financing tools such as issuing bonds against future federal highway money, building new toll roads and seeking additional lines of credit through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.

The report also suggests trimming TxDOT's staff; focusing more attention on obtaining federal discretionary dollars; and upgrading the state's vehicle title and registration system via the Internet.

The estimates are encouraging, and I am eager to discuss the possibility of sweeping changes to the way we finance transportation projects in Texas.

But as we consider these big-picture changes, let's remember that every dollar counts.

If we fail to pass a stronger open container law and tougher penalties for repeate DWI offenders, the federal government will divert $43 million in October and double that amount the following year into restricted safety accounts.

I have filed Senate Bill 89 to prevent this from happening. The bill calls for an expansion of the open container law to cover both drivers and passengers and an automatic license suspension for Texans convicted of a second DWI offense.

These are reasonable measures for a state that leads the nation in alcohol-related traffic deaths. This bill will save lives; bring us into federal compliance and help us meet our transportation needs.

Senator Nelson represents Senate District 12, which includes parts of Dallas, Denton, Ellis and Tarrant counties.

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