It wasn’t all about the money.
With one week left in the session, the chance that our 181 legislative heroes (Ever notice that matches almost exactly the number of defenders at the Alamo? Probably a coincidence.) will come up with significant new cash for the Texas Department of Transportation are dimming.
Efforts to increase fees have crashed. Friday’s budget deal, it appears, will at least move $400 million from the state’s general fund to TxDOT, and perhaps another $500 million for damaged oil patch roads could make it into another bill still breathing. But even should both occur, that would still fall billions short of what TxDOT leaders have said they need to wrestle congestion to a stalemate. And as I’ve written, that likely means a sharp falloff in new road or road expansion projects starting in about two years, other than privately financed, constructed and operated tollways.
More on that in a minute.
But if lawmakers struggled with that most pressing transportation responsibility, they haven’t totally ignored the issue. Here are some of the bills that have a real chance of passage, or have even been sent to the governor. And also one that won’t make it.
Pay your tolls, or else. SB 1792, by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has passed both chambers in somewhat different forms but will go to Gov. Rick Perry soon if the Senate, as expected, agrees to the House version. It would address the problem of serial toll scofflaws on our state’s growing roster of tollways. Right now, toll agencies have to prosecute the offenders in justice of the peace courts, a cumbersome and largely ineffective method of discouraging tollway freeloaders.
Watson’s bill would allow someone with 100 violations or more to be designated a “habitual violator.” Once that happens, they would be denied the ability to register their vehicle until paying up. And if they are caught on a tollway, their vehicle could be impounded. This is what as known as teeth.
Profusion of public-private partnerships. Way back in 2007 and 2009, the Legislature hated so-called concessions, long-term agreements between TxDOT and private companies where the company pays for construction, operates the road for up to 50 years and, if all goes well, makes a profit. Lawmakers even passed a moratorium on such deals.
Funny what the lack of gas tax money will do, however. With TxDOT set to tumble off a financial cliff in a couple of years (unless the 2015 Legislature does something), SB 1730 by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, has become a very popular vehicle. It would authorize TxDOT and local toll agencies (like the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority) to enter into such agreements for two dozen projects. That includes the “Bergstrom Expressway,” which would be a tollway built on top of U.S. 183 in East Austin.
As of late last week, the House- and Senate-passed versions were headed to a conference committee.
Letting TxDOT guard its environmental henhouse. Under SB 466 from state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, TxDOT would get more authority to both conduct and approve some environmental reviews of its projects. TxDOT, or contractors it hires, does those reviews now, but the Federal Highway Administration has final approval in all cases. This would undoubtedly speed up the process, but of course carries the risk that TxDOT might grade its own efforts on an overly forgiving curve.
This bill is awaiting Perry’s signature.
Getting the neighbors on board. Transit agencies like Capital Metro have long had a problem expanding their services, whether it involves buses or rail lines, into nearby towns that are not members. Round Rock, Cedar Park and Pflugerville, for instance, are not members of Capital Metro and don’t devote 1 percent of their sales tax revenue to the agency, as is the case with member jurisdictions.
SB 276, sponsored by Watson and state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, would let transit agencies and non-member cities form “local government corporations” that could become the vehicle for expanding service outside the transit agency’s boundaries. Dallas Area Rapid Transit already has this power under state law, and has used it with nonmember cities in its orbit.
The corporations, with directors from both the transit agency and the nonmember cities, would oversee agreements setting out the expanded service and how much the cities would pay. With Capital Metro at the center of regional rail planning, such deals could make it easier to build planned lines to Elgin, Round Rock and Georgetown, none of them Capital Metro members.
This one is also on Perry’s desk.
Texting-while-driving bill in ditch. OMG! Perry evidently won’t get a second chance to veto this statewide ban on texting while driving a car or truck, a prohibition he has said would be government “micro-management.” Unlike, you know, speed limits, stop signs, driver license requirements, truck weight limits, driving-while-intoxicated statutes and seat belt laws.
HB 63, carried by former House speaker Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, made it through the House (albeit on a slimmer vote than when it passed in 2011), but has stalled in the Senate Transportation Committee.
Nichols, who chairs that committee, gave the bill a hearing but told me last week he doesn’t plan to hold a vote. Nichols didn’t support the ban when it passed in 2011 (although he voted for a bill it was amended onto) and subsequently was rejected by the governor. He said that because Perry has made it plain he will veto it again, a committee vote is unnecessary.
Twenty-six Texas cities, including Austin (since 2009) already ban texting while driving, as do 39 states and the District of Columbia.