Transportation Committees major factor in needed reforms
By Terri Hall
January 25, 2015
When Texas voters elected a new Governor and Lt. Governor, they ushered in a new era of leadership that promised key reforms in the arena of transportation - promising to address the structural funding shortfalls without tolls as well as problems with processes and efficiencies. Much of the new policy will be shaped by who Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Speaker Joe Straus tap as Transportation Committee members. Patrick just announced his picks Friday and Straus is expected to announce his soon.
So let’s take a look at Patrick’s picks for the Senate Transportation Committee. Senator Robert Nichols (R - Jacksonville) will remain the Chair, but most notable are the new faces on the committee, including four new senators Bob Hall (R - Kaufman County), Don Huffines (R -Dallas), Lois Kolkhorst (R -Brenham), and Van Taylor (R - Plano). Taylor and Kolkhorst formerly served in the Texas House. All of the new senators are anti-toll. Huffines was appointed Vice Chair, which is a big nod. Compare that to just one anti-toll committee member last session and none in prior sessions, and this is a Texas-sized step forward for taxpayers.
Veterans Kelly Hancock (R - North Richland Hills) and Rodney Ellis (D - Houston) are the only returning senators on the committee besides Nichols, with Troy Fraser (R - Horseshoe Bay) and Sylvia Garcia (D - Palito Blanco) landing on the Transportation Committee for the first time. Nichols has a history of being pro-toll, but with both Patrick and the new Governor Greg Abbott campaigning on a strong transportation reform platform without more toll roads, it’s likely even Nichols will soften his prior positions under the new leadership. Former Governor Rick Perry made toll roads his primary transportation policy for over a decade, resulting in punitive, double taxation with toll rates exceeding 80 cents a mile on some highways. Perry and a willing legislature also delved the state deep into road debt now exceeding $30 billion. Both Abbott and Patrick have vowed to sufficiently fund roads without raising taxes, fees, and without more tolls.
So what would a transportation dream team look like in the House? Most Capitol insiders believe Straus will not re-appoint Larry Phillips (R - Sherman) as the Chair. Some speculate former Chair Joe Pickett (D - El Paso) or Rep. Cindy Burkett (R - Mesquite) may snag the post. But Rep. Ron Simmons (R - Carrollton) has been quite vocal about the need for reforms in transportation decision-making and prioritization as well as calling for greater efficiency at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
Simmons researched the cost to build highways in Texas and found costs rose 50% over the last 10 years compared to only 12% nationwide. Simmons also isn’t a fan of toll roads, reflecting the disdain of most Texans which was affirmed by the Texas Transportation Institute study where Texans ranked toll roads dead last out 15 possible transportation solutions. Simmons has also filed a bill to dedicate vehicle sales tax to the highway fund as means of increasing funding without raising taxes (HB 373). So a committee chaired by Simmons would be most welcome.
Rep. Scott Sanford (R - McKinney) and Rep. Jeff Leach (R - Plano) have also filed bills to address transportation funding (HB 202, HB 203) and transparency (HB 856) and both have made transportation reform a priority for the session. Rep. Lyle Larson (R - San Antonio) has also taken aim at toll authorities known as Regional Mobility Authorities, filing a bill to subject them to sunset review. He’s also filed bills to require the San Antonio transit authority, Via, to be an elected board and to require a public vote before it could build a light rail system. Rep. James Frank (R - Wichita Falls) served with both Simmons and Larson on the interim committee to study transportation funding and appears very like-minded with his colleagues on the need for changes at TxDOT, not just more money. Burkett has learned just how controversial private toll roads are when the proposed Blacklands tollway set her district on fire last year. She’s filed a bill (HB 565) to strip the private company, Texas Turnpike Corporation, of eminent domain authority to build its for-profit tollway. So she may be an ally in reducing the state’s reliance on tolling.
To round out the dream team, anti-toll champions like Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R - Bedford), Rep. David Simpson (R - Longview), and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R - Grapevine) (all received an ‘A’ grade on the anti-toll Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, or TURF, Report Card from the 83rd session) would be great additions to the House Transportation Committee. Longtime committee members, Pickett and Rep. Yvonne Davis (D - Dallas), have an extensive knowledge of transportation, a reform mindset, and would be great assets to the committee.
Who ultimately gets selected to lead this important committee determines the fate of all transportation-related legislation for the session. The philosophy and approach to transportation finance and TxDOT and related entities ought to reflect what Texans want - greater efficiency, truth in taxation (like ending gas tax diversions), and no more toll roads.