Transportation bills that threaten prosperity, freedom

Link to article here.

Note how the bills that raise your tax on driving to 75 cents a mile (private toll roads) are soaring through, but bills to dedicate existing taxes (vehicle sales taxes) to roads so your roads don't have to be tolled and bills to take tolls off roads when they're paid for got buried in Committee.

Slow legislative session for transportation nonetheless has a few bills worth following in final weeks

Ben Wear: Getting There
Austin American Statesman

Published: 7:12 p.m. Sunday, May 8, 2011

Back in 2007, when the Legislature was about to have its biennial 140-day talkanalia, I thought it probably would be a low-key session for my beat. After all, lawmakers had passed a huge transportation bill in 2003, and then a fairly large follow-up bill in 2005.

Not much was likely to happen. Boy, was I wrong.

The new Senate transportation chairman that January called for the Texas Transportation Commission chairman to step aside; Houston lawmakers turned on the Texas Department of Transportation for bigfooting them on some huge tollway projects; Dallas senators were mad at the agency about another toll road deal; and rural folks wanted to drive a stake into the heart of the Trans-Texas Corridor. Holy Hades — and big changes — ensued.

I had the same feeling this session, that transportation would take a back seat to the state's ailing budget and redistricting. I wasn't wrong this time. About the biggest thing to happen in transportation this time — $19.5 billion big, as I reported last week — is that TxDOT's budget may grow by 23 percent, while the rest of state government is checking vending machines for spare change.

With three weeks remaining in the 82nd Legislature, here are the transportation bills that are cooking and cooling.

TxDOT sunset and private tollway leases. Senate Bill 1420 is headed to a House-Senate conference committee laden with dozens of amendments tacked on in the House.

Most prominently, the bill would authorize private concession agreements for about 20 specific tollway projects across the state, including MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) managed lanes north of the river and U.S. 183 in East Austin.

Those long-term leases with private companies were part of the huge stir in 2007, when legislators banned most of them. They've had a change of heart, and this bill probably will go to Gov. Rick Perry with those roads still in it. What it won't have, after both chambers rejected the idea, is a single transportation commissioner to replace the existing five-member commission appointed by the governor.

Full speed ahead. House Bill 1353, which would allow TxDOT to set 75 mph speed limits on rural highways in about 150 counties where the maximum is now 70 mph and would do away with the lower speed limits at night and for trucks, probably will pass the Senate this week. I'm told the Senate probably will leave it unchanged from the House version, sending it to Perry.

As for the ballyhooed 85 mph speed limit bill, which in fact would apply only to the second phase of Texas 130 under construction southeast of Austin (and would remove the Trans-Texas Corridor from the statutes), it passed the House and is now pending in a Senate committee. Hard to say what its fate will be.

Big (borrowed) bucks. The Senate's version of House Bill 1, the 2012-13 state budget bill, has $3.2 billion more in it for TxDOT than what the House approved late last month. It appears that the Senate budget figure — the difference is made up almost entirely of money that would be borrowed and paid back from the state's general fund over 30 years — has a good chance of prevailing.

Capital Metro labor. Senate Bill 650, which among other elements would force Austin's transit agency to contract out all bus and rail service, or make all workers full-fledged agency employees, has passed the Senate and a House committee and is awaiting a spot on the House calendar for action. Either option, which would eliminate Capital Metro's subsidiary-faux-contractor StarTran, would save the agency millions of dollars a year, according to a recent agency report. The bill stands a good chance of passage, which would force a hard choice on the Capital Metro board that it has shied away from making on its own.

Buses on MoPac shoulders? Maybe not. Senate Bill 1102, which would allow transit buses to skirt traffic congestion by using highway shoulders on certain freeways in Travis and a few other counties, is awaiting action by the Senate as a whole. But it has fallen off the Senate's calendar for debate. With time short and a variety of legislative deadlines looming, the bill could be in trouble. Perry vetoed a similar bill two years ago, citing safety concerns, but supporters have added training and public awareness requirements this time to address his concerns.

Also in trouble. Idling on various lower rungs of the legislative ladder, and thus unlikely to become law, are bills that would: completely ban converting free lanes to toll lanes (it can be done with a public vote now); prohibit selling devices to jam police radar; divert various fees to a now-empty "rail relocation and improvement fund" (to move freight lines outside urban areas) that voters created several years ago; require that revenue from the 6.25 percent state sales tax on vehicle purchases, about $2.5 billion a year that now goes to the state's general fund, instead go to TxDOT for highway work; allow counties to have local elections to raise fees or taxes for local transportation projects; and require toll roads to become free roads once the bonds sold to pay for construction have been paid off.

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