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Commentary: Mega Transit Agency in Valley Can’t Fix What’s Wrong with Transit Failures
The Texas Legislature needs to ‘Just Say No’ to creating a new Regional Transit Authority.
Frustrated by our lack of progress on limited-government, conservative principles in this session of the Texas Legislature?
When you see which transportation bills are moving over others, it’s hard to fathom how a bill to create a massive new transit bureaucracy that can issue bonds, charge tolls, and do no-bid contracts of all sorts takes precedence over things like reforming a toll collection system that’s financially ruining millions of Texas drivers.
There’s been plenty of bad press surrounding the failure of transit both nationally and in Texas, so the legislature needs to ‘Just Say No’ to creating a new Regional Transit Authority as proposed in House Bill 71 (Martinez) and Senate Bill 1721 (Lucio).
The authors claim these bills provide bus service for poor people in the Rio Grande Valley, but a closer look reveals an expansive new bureaucracy with broad power to charge tolls, fees, and issue bonds for virtually every conceivable form of transit: High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, airports, buses, light rail, commuter rail, parking garages, and bridges.
The bills would also allow no-bid contracts for anything under $50,000 [see Sec. 463.106 (c)(1)]. Fifty thousand dollars can buy a lot of influence and can be handed out like candy to contractors. In addition, the bill would increase tolls for crossing international bridges (Sec. 463.069 (a)1-3), and 75 percent of the new bridge toll revenues would go to fund mass transit and rail rather than the road or bridge toll-payers are driving on. So, once again, elected officials are trying to tax cars for transit they don’t use, diverting yet more road revenues for transit.
Despite transit ridership remaining flat for 45 years, according to Steven Polzin of the University of South Florida, some still insist on pushing transit and even giving it a leg up over cars. SB 1721 gives transit, toll users, and/or HOV users signal priority on streets or dedicated lanes misnamed “high capacity” transit (since ridership is generally abysmal) [Sec. 463.001 (6)].
In an era when criminal justice reform is being hailed on both sides of the aisle, these bills would create a security force for fare enforcement and HOV/HOT lane enforcement (Sec. 463.108, Sec. 463.063) as well as creating criminal offenses and administrative fees for nonpayment (Sec. 463.062).
Like most transit authorities, SB 1721 would also leverage local tax dollars to enter into bond debt [Sec. 462.054 (2)(e)]. Experience shows that’s a recipe for disaster. Issuing bonds for rail always reduces bus service and eats up local taxes essential for other necessities, creating the need for further tax hikes down the road to cover the sea of red ink.
In July 2016, Forbes ran an article entitled “Austin’s Commuter Rail Is A Monument To Government Waste.” It states each average round-trip rider is subsidized an average of about $10,000 per year. A study published by the Hamilton Project found that every transit system in the country runs at a loss.
Former Carrollton Mayor Matthew Marchant cited several reasons why passenger rail doesn’t work in Texas, including the fact that rail is between 15 to 35 times more expensive to build than traditional roads, while costing eight times more to operate than buses.
In 2017, Ross Kecseg’s article in Texas Scorecard noted this rail fantasy has been devastating. Rail lines cost between $40 to $80 million per mile to build, or are nearly four times more expensive than an eight-lane highway:
“In other words, every major highway on the Dallas side of the DFW Metroplex could have been renovated and expanded—without toll roads—and without much help from TXDoT if it hadn’t spent the funds to build 90 miles of commuter train tracks.”
The fiscal concerns are bad enough, but this RTA bill encourages eminent domain for private gain by leasing out transit station or terminal complex space for restaurants or other inherently private functions, even though the bill says the land taken for the RTA is for a public purpose and is a ‘matter of public necessity.’ A commissioners court resolution is all the bill requires for something to be declared a public necessity for public use [Sec. 463.059 (3)(b)].
State Sen. Eddie Lucio (D–Weslaco) stated commuter rail is only “an option in the future,” but naturally the bill grants the authority to create a commuter rail district and saddle the most economically distressed part of the state with new debt that could break the bank. Once the legislature gives the authority to create an RTA, it’s only a matter of time before that “option” becomes reality.