It's no surprise that the federally-funded North Texas Regional Transportation Council will once again lobby for more toll roads, specifically public private partnerships that cost drivers' a premium in peak hours, but it's particularly offensive given the economic downturn and what are likely permanent changes to traffic patterns now that millions of Texans have shown they can work from home and stay productive. Toll road debt is more risky than ever as the toll industry asked congress for a $9.2 billion bailout earlier this year due to coronavirus lockdowns. Who knows what the future of road tax revenues will look like post-COVID.
Regional Planning Council Prioritizes High-Speed Rail and Toll Lanes as Part of Legislative Agenda
As the 87th legislative session commences in January, local officials plan to advocate for increased funding for transportation projects including high-speed rail and the ability to utilize toll roads and managed lanes.
By Kim Roberts
November 13, 2020
As the 87th Texas Legislative Session approaches its commencement in January, the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) Regional Transportation Council (RTC) has approved its legislative program.
The council plans to promote and support legislation in four primary areas: (1) funding transportation and transit projects, (2) expanding transportation options in mega-metropolitan regions, (3) pursuing innovation, technology, and safety, and (4) improving air quality.
The legislative priorities of the RTC will be transmitted to the members of the legislature.
While the RTC can have no paid lobbyists, its members are local government officials who have relationships with state legislators.
As Michael Morris, NCTCOG Transportation Director explained at the RTC meeting, members will be asked to identify legislators with whom they have relationships in order to facilitate contact and encourage support of specific legislation by those legislators. In other words, the local officials who are members of the RTC will function as lobbyists.
Priority One: Transportation Funding
The RTC expressed concerns about the funding of transportation because Proposition 1 funds, those that come from oil and gas revenues in the state and are committed to transportation funding, are likely to decrease in the next couple of years.
The Texas Department of Transportation projects that Proposition 1 funding will decrease from $1,660,000,000 in 2020 to $1,100,000,000 in 2021 and $636 million in 2022.
One pre-filed bill that will likely draw the support of the RTC is House Bill (HB) 427 by Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian). This bill would authorize an additional fee to be paid at registration. Owners of electric vehicles would pay $200 extra and owners of hybrid vehicles would pay $100.
Proponents of these fees point to the decrease of fuel taxes and the initiation of fees to “offset the lost fuel taxes.” Texas taxes gasoline at 20 cents per gallon currently, while the federal government imposes an 18.4 cents per gallon tax.
Priority Two: Expand Transportation Options
The second legislative priority to expand transportation options includes the use of toll roads, managed lanes, and public transit systems. Furthermore, the RTC supports the right to use eminent domain authority to develop and expand transportation, including high-speed rail.
“NCTCOG’s push for yet more toll roads, especially public private partnerships like the over priced Lexus lanes operated by a private, foreign corporation on I-635 and I-820, defies the Governor’s promise and flouts the will of the taxpayers who have persistently said ’No’ to such corporate welfare. It’s time to tighten their belts, not ask hurting Texas families to dig deeper,” commented Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Freedom and Reform, an organization aiming to defending citizens’ concerns about toll roads & eminent domain abuse.
The 13th Texas Court of Appeals ruled in the spring that the Texas Central high-speed rail project can exercise the power of eminent domain because it qualifies as a railroad under Texas law. The decision has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) has pre-filed HB 114 regarding high-speed rail projects. It would not allow any state agency to grant permits or negotiate rights-of-way for high-speed rail projects until those projects have attained all the federally-required approvals.
“This legislation filed by Representative Toth is an important opportunity for our State Legislature to protect both private property rights and tax dollars. We deeply appreciate the commitment by Representative Toth and the strong group of legislators who continue to support Texas landowners and oppose the doomed HSR debacle,” a spokesperson for Texans Against High-Speed Rail wrote to The Texan.
In September, the Federal Railroad Administration released its final rule regulating the operating rules and practices, maintenance, and safety practices for Texas Central. It also contains the Record of Decision related to environmental issues and selects the alignment for the route.
The FRA rule does not grant permission for Texas Central to begin construction but does allow it to proceed in making an application to the Surface Transportation Board, an independent federal agency charged with the economic regulation of railroads. The application requires public notice and may include conditions for construction.
Priority Three: Innovation, Technology, Safety
The RTC’s third legislative priority concerning innovation, technology, and safety would cover legislation regarding unmanned aircraft and other innovative modes of transportation like hyperloop. RTC would also encourage legislation that claims to improve safety on the roads, including speed limit and texting laws.
One such bill, HB 442, was filed by Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin). It would reduce speed limits on city streets in residential areas to 25 miles per hour rather than the typical 30 miles per hour.
Senate Bill 42 by Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) would expand the current laws against texting while driving to include any use of a wireless communication device while driving. According to TXDOT in 2019, there were 377 people killed in crashes involving distracted driving. This is a six percent decrease from 2018.
Priority Four: Air Quality
The final legislative priority of the NCTCOG RTC is to improve air quality by protecting the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) trust fund and encouraging the purchase of zero-emission vehicles. Houston and Harris County have recently proposed plans in line with Vision Zero, which treats transportation as a public health issue since motor vehicles contribute to carbon emissions and associated health issues.
The Texas Central Railroad did not reply to a request for comment.