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August 20, 2009 (512) 463-0300

SENATE COMMITTEE HEARS TESTIMONY ON STATE PREPAREDNESS AND TRANSPORTATION ISSUES

(ARLINGTON) — Issues from drought to disease to metropolitan traffic were addressed by the Texas Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security today, August 20, 2009, at a meeting in Arlington.

Jack Colley, Chief of the Governor's Division of Emergency Management, led off with a report to the committee on Texas' efforts to get federal assistance to fight the effects of the current drought in south and central Texas, as well as how fighting the brush fires that come along with such droughts are funded. He told the committee that Governor Rick Perry has applied to the federal government for a disaster declaration for all 254 counties so that federal help and funding would be forthcoming. He also described improvements in hurricane preparedness since Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast in 2008. He said that during Ike, cooperation between the state and private petrochemical companies prevented “a significant disaster, not just to the coast”, in potential damage to the state's oil industry.

Colonel Steve McCraw told the Senators that the much-criticized border camera program is an effort to take care of remote ranches that Border Patrol or Sheriff's offices cannot quickly reach. He said that the jury is still out on how effective the current system is, but that using technology to put “eyes on the border” helps in terms of the ranchers who have asked for it and in getting scarce resources to where they are needed.

General Jose S. Mayorga, Texas Adjutant General, reported that the Texas Military forces have deployed approximately 20 thousand soldiers overseas, with a large part of those in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as responding to eleven hurricanes over the past four years. He thanked the committee for their support in the past as well as considering pay raises for the Texas Military who continue to serve. Colonel Connie McNabb with the Air National Guard told the members that through Operation Lone Star, an effort to get medical aid to under-served Texans, that more than 30 thousand treatments had been performed.

The swine flu made an appearance at today's meeting. Dr. David Lakey, Commissioner of the Texas Dept. of State Health Services, said there have been at least five thousand cases of the disease in Texas over the summer, with probably many more unreported. He told the committee that the current pandemic has been much milder than anticipated and that this has given the state time to learn more about the disease and be prepared for additional outbreaks in the fall. Belinda Pustka, Superintendent of the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District, described how her district handled a closing when the first H1N1 cases were reported there in the spring, saying, “A pandemic is new for us, as institutions...we know that when children arrive on Monday morning, it will arrive with them.” She told the committee of what the district is doing to limit contact between students, helping to prevent the spread of the disease and urging parents to keep ill students home. “(Parents) need to think beyond their own family, they need to consider other families as well.”

High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes have been a major issue in the Metroplex. Rosemary Miramontes testified that the current HOV lanes are indeed, dangerous. She testified that since May of 2009, a number of people have been killed while driving into the lanes due to what she called faulty design. Her son was made a quadriplegic due to an accident in which a car illegally entered the lane and struck her son's vehicle. She criticized the city and the Dallas transit district for not issuing tickets to those who illegally enter the lanes, and she says police are rarely seen there. According to Miramontes, the number of accidents jumped from about 250 to approximately 400 on one stretch of road, due to the installation of the lanes. She told the committee that the lanes were squeezed into older expressways, where there was barely enough room for the existing lanes and should either be fixed or eliminated. Committee Chairman Corona called on local officials to explain why the accident rate had apparently jumped so far.

John Barton, Assistant Executive Director for TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation), told the committee that the lanes were installed in an effort to use the roadways in the most efficient manner and were effective in cutting emissions. He said that the lanes are sometimes separated from the rest of the highway by pylons or in some places, only painted stripes, such as in the place where Miramontes' son was severely injured. Those rubber pylons that mark the lanes have also been locally criticized as inadequate, but Barton said they met all current standards and had reduced what he called the “crash rate” on U.S. 75.

Chairman Carona said that his personal experience showed that pylons are not properly maintained, that many are missing and they have not been replaced for “many, many months”. DART officials said pylons are replaced on a weekly basis. Chairman Carona asked, “So there'll be a truck out there replacing pylons when?” Local TxDOT officials responded they would be out there “this week or next” and that the new ones would be “tougher”. The Chairman asked if these lanes were narrower than others across the state and were an unsafe design. Barton responded that the pylons were designed to keep cars out of the lanes and that concrete barriers would trap motorists in the lane in case of accidents. Chairman Carona said the “worst danger” appears when you have pylons in place but due to poor maintenance gaps appear, and those gaps actually encourage motorists to illegally enter the HOV lane. He was assured that maintenance would be improved. Carona said this was a “hometown issue” that the committee would be “watching closely...that the bright light will be on you.”

Senator Wendy Davis wanted to know why, when a recent report claimed “no design flaws” in the construction of the lanes, and that they meet all standards, are they really a good design when the road shoulders have been practically eliminated. She wanted solid figures on how the current design of the HOV lanes have affected the accident rate. TxDOT officials promised this information would be forthcoming.

Amadeo Saenz, Jr., TxDOT Executive Director, promised that the current lanes would be maintained and that future highway designs would include full shoulders. He also reported on the TxDOT restructuring process as well as planning for high speed rail projects in Texas. One of the issues regarding rail is that it's currently difficult to travel from Kansas through Oklahoma into Texas via rail, that this rail corridor needs to be redeveloped. Chairman Carona agreed with this concept, saying the route needed to be developed all the way from Texas to Chicago.

The Texas Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security is Chaired by Senator John Carona of Dallas. The Vice-chair is Senator Kirk Watson of Austin, and members include Senators Rodney Ellis of Houston, Joan Huffman of Lake Jackson, Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, Florence Shapiro of Plano, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, and Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio. The committee recessed subject to call of the chair.