TRANSPORTATION HIGHLIGHTS WEEK'S BUSINESS
(AUSTIN) — Issues relating to how the state pays for and runs its highways and roads have been some of the most significant topics this session, and this week was no different. Much of the controversy about transportation has revolved around a proposed system of tollways and highways called the Trans Texas Corridor. Opponents criticize the state's policy of entering into comprehensive development agreements (CDAs) that transfer administration rights to private entities who build and maintain the roads. Opponents say these deals leave the public out of the loop and aren't appropriately accountable or transparent, and many lawmakers agree. The Senate passed three bills this week intended to address some of the problems many Texans have with toll road expansion.
Senate Bill 1795 would give the state greater access to other sources of funding beside public/private partnerships. This bill, authored by Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, would double the amount of bonds the state could issue for transportation projects, from $3 to $6 billion. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst said that this bill will tell the Texas Department of Transportation that it doesn't have to turn to CDAs to pay for highways. "Senate Bill 1795 sends a strong message to TxDOT that we have additional revenues here in Texas, and while I believe there is a legitimate role for public/private investments in roads here in Texas, we ought to make sure, when possible, to use state funds and build highways as economical as possible," he said.
Ogden also sponsored SB 718, which would restrict TxDOT to previously identified route selection, called the Texas Trunk System, which emphasizes expanding existing highways over new construction. If TxDOT decides a project does not fit into this model, it must notify the Legislature within ten days.
Transportation and Homeland Security Chair John Carona agrees that the state should look for funding outside of public/private partnerships, but he proposes an increase in the gas tax to do so. At a Monday press conference, Carona called on his House colleagues to consider a bill that would tie the gas tax rate to a variable economic indicator, such as the Highway Cost Index. Currently, the state gas tax stands at 20 cents per gallon, where it was set in 1991. Carona says that barely covers highway maintenance, and with construction costs continuing to rise, soon it won't even pay for that.
Raising the gas tax, says Carona, is much cheaper and sensible for commuters than paying toll fees. By 2030, he says, a gas tax increase tied to HCI would cost the average commuter $21 per month, opposed to an estimated $100 per month in tolls. Either way, the state could be looking at a transportation crisis if it doesn't change its funding model soon, said Carona. "We're at a crossroads," he said. "We can either continue along our current, haphazard transportation policy for which the public has shown an increasing distaste, or we can give ourselves an essential tool to create a long-term, responsive transportation plan that will best serve Texas now and in the years to come."
Bills that deal with tax issues must originate in the House, according to the Texas Constitution, and current bills dealing with the gas tax are still in House committees.
Another bill aimed at increasing transparency in public/private contracts was passed Wednesday. Senate Bill 995, by Lewisville Senator Jane Nelson, would require that entities that intend to enter into a construction project with TxDOT must report on the financial details of the proposed contract in newspapers in the area where the project is to be built. The entities would have to hold public hearings before the contracts could be finalized.
Two more bills, this time seeking to regulate controversial red-light cameras, were passed by the Senate this week. Proponents of these cameras, which are automatic devices that snap pictures of traffic violators, say they improve public safety, while opponents say it is just another way for cities to increase revenue. The two bills passed this week represent a compromise between the two positions, restricting how much fines are and what they can be used for, but not banning their use.
Senate bills 125 and 1119, by Senator John Carona, work together to codify, for the first time, state laws relating to these cameras. The bills would cap fines for offenses caught by red-light cameras at $75 dollars. Half of the net revenue would go to the state to offset trauma care costs in the region where the fine was collected, and the other half would go to the state for public safety funds. The bills would also require the cities to conduct an engineering survey before installing cameras, to prove that they are needed for public safety at certain intersections. Carona says these bills guarantee these cameras are used to enhance safety and not as a way to increase revenue. "I really do think that we are ensuring that these cameras will end up only in places where they provide public good, and that they're not merely means to create an electronic speed trap." he said.
Wednesday, the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee approved a measure to halt all CDAs for 24 months to allow the state to study the issue further. This bill would effectively halt Trans Texas Corridor construction for two years, but Lt. Governor Dewhurst said he's going to wait on the bill, to see if lawmakers and agency representatives can come up with an acceptable compromise. "I'm going to hold that bill for awhile, and see what kind of progress the Chairman (Sen. Carona) makes in his negotiations with the House," he said.
The Senate will take an extended weekend for the Easter and Passover holidays, and will return Tuesday, April 10, at 11 a.m.