The Texas House and Senate Saturday approved a compromise version of Senate Bill 312, the must-pass Texas Department of Transportation sunset bill, sending it on to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature. That final version of the bill, worked out by its sponsor Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and a House-Senate conference committee in recent days, retains some of the changes imposed by the House earlier this month and softens others.
The bill retains the House’s strict cap on administrative fees and penalties for unpaid tolls, capping them at $73 every six months. The conference committee restored a potential $250 criminal fine for failure to pay tolls, one that would have to be imposed by a court, and the measure allows court costs to be added to that figure. But it limits such criminal fines to one per year.
The vehicle owner would still owe all of the underlying tolls.
The upshot is that the bill would prevent situations, such as have incurred in some cases over the past decade, where Texans runs up bills in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for unpaid tolls, fees and fines.
The final bill will also require local toll agencies, in most cases, to repay TxDOT grants used to help them build tollways. However, the legislation excepts grants made out of so-called sub-accounts at TxDOT, mostly a reference to a more than $3 billion payment that the North Texas Tollway Authority made to TxDOT about a decade ago for the right to build a Collin County tollway. That money has been used to help build more roads in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the years since and transportation officials did not want the toll authority to have to repay money it contributed in the first place.
The legislation also excepts from repayment any project where the environmental study began before Jan. 1, 2014. That could exempt the South MoPac toll lane project, which has been under study for several years but is currently on hold.