Higher Needs and Limited Funds for Transportation
AUSTIN - The State Affairs Committee met on June 20, 2002, in the Senate chamber. The senators heard comments from witnesses about four of the five interim charges, all related to state transportation.
Chairman of the committee, Senator Florence Shapiro, opened the meeting saying it is time to act, not only in terms of roads and highways but with respect to all elements of transportation in the state. She said the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has been unable to coordinate and communicate with communities in a proactive way, waiting instead for their response after important decisions are already made. We already know Texas will get less federal funds, she said, so it is the state who should step up with the much needed resources. Senator Gallegos voiced his concern about the overloaded trucks seen in our roads, and the danger they pose. As the head of the Veterans Committee, Senator Truan talked about the importance of the ports in the Gulf of Mexico for both economic and military reasons.
The first charge of the committee is to actively monitor the TxDOT's update of the Texas Transportation Plan, as it relates to transportation funding, traffic congestion, multimodal transportation, rural transportation planning, NAFTA-related traffic, and the establishment of acceptable levels of services. The committee may also recommend improvements in planning procedures, statutory changes, and solutions to the transportation's funding shortfall. First to testify about this charge was Attorney David Laney of Jenkens & Gilchrist. The decline in the capacity and levels of service in the state can be solved in part with more funds, he said, but the population is increasing at such a rate that is hard to keep up with the growth. He proposed a reorganization of TxDot, with a bigger allocation of funds to the urban centers.
Next, the committee heard from a panel about railroads, with Bill Barton, general counsel of the Texas Railroad Association; Wendell Cox, senior fellow of the Texas Public Policy Foundation; Paul Mangelsdorf, board member of the Texas Rail Advocates; and Robert Nichols, member of the Texas Transportation Commission. The panel and senators exchanged ideas about the importance of the railroads' role in helping to decongest the roads. If executed, the Trans-Texas corridor, an initiative proposed by Governor Perry, would transport passengers and cargo between different locations in the state. Senator Armbrister wondered if Texans would leave their trucks at home and jump into trains instead. Concerns were also raised about mismanagement at TxDOT, with one member describing it as "the level of ENRON" in a public institution. Participants asked for a more proactive rail representation at TxDOT.
Robert Nichols, member of the Texas Transportation Commission, testified about bridges. Jose L. Flores, vice president of the Texas Airport Management Association, sent a written testimony and David S. Fulton, director of the Aviation Division of TxDOT, talked about aviation. He voiced concerns about federal funding focusing more and more on airports security, resulting in less money for building and upkeep of infrastructure. John Roby, transportation manager of the Port of Beaumont, testified about sea ports on behalf of the Texas Port Association.
The fifth panel addressed access management policy. The consensus of the panel was that the existing roadways access management works, and the policy should be adopted by more cities to solve or diminish traffic congestion problems, and to increase safety.
The next charge discussed was number 3, which orders the committee to evaluate developments related to the commercial trucking industry. The study may include an evaluation of the state's ongoing efforts to enforce truck safety regulations efficiently and fairly, developments at the state and federal levels related to opening our highways to Mexican truck traffic, and the effect of heavy truck traffic on our state and local roadways.
Commissioner Mack Rose of Jasper County, Commissioner Jimmy Davis of Panola County, Commissioner James Hubbard of Wise County, and the past chairman of Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association, Vic Lattimore, were on the agenda to testify about the effects of heavy commercial trucks on Texas roads. Some of them sent written testimony or representatives to the meeting.
The witnesses said overweight trucks are damaging Texas roads and bridges, creating a serious statewide problem. The problem has increased as the number of Mexican trucks using Texas roads increases. The damage is a consequence of the NAFTA trade agreement. Load limits set for bridges have to be extended to county roads and highways, witnesses said.
The members heard from Captain Gary Albus, of the License and Weight Division of DPS; Sheriff Tommy B. Thomas of Harris County; Sheriff James Bowles of Dallas County; Sgt. C.J. Klausner of the Houston Police Department; Bill Webb, president of Texas Motor Transportation Association; and Darrel Borchardt, research engineer of TTI, about enforcement of this issue. DPS representatives said that new federal funds would pay for more enforcement agents in the Texas-Mexico ports of entry. Law enforcement agents can now go directly to loading sites, with permission from the truck companies, to inspect the vehicles before they leave. Other concerns are malfunction of brakes, worn tires, and badly secured loads.
The last charge discussed was number 2, which orders the committee to monitor developments at the federal level relating to the re-authorization of TEA-21, and the creation of new transportation financing techniques. Robert Nichols, from the Texas Transportation Commission, testified. The federal funds for states transportation have diminished, assumedly based on the decrease in gasoline taxes. More cuts are envisioned based on the events of September 11 that led to more funds being assigned to security.
The State Affairs Committee is chaired by Senator Florence Shapiro of Plano, and co-chaired by Senator Carlos F. Truan of Corpus Christi. Members include Senators Ken Armbrister of Victoria, John Carona of Dallas, Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, Mario Gallegos of Houston, Chris Harris of Fort Worth, Frank Madla of San Antonio and Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso. The committee recessed subject to the call of the chair.