Texas transportation overhaul bill still in the works

| 5/22/2009

Time will tell how much of a price, if any, the Texas Transportation Commission may pay for turning a deaf ear to public sentiment.

With about one week remaining for the Texas Legislature to finish haggling over provisions in a bill to overhaul the Texas Department of Transportation, negotiators from both chambers will determine what makes the final cut.

The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee unanimously endorsed the bill this week after making nearly three dozen revisions to the House-approved version. The bill’s next stop is the Senate floor where a vote is expected during the Memorial Day weekend. HB300 will then head to a conference committee to work out the final details.

Issues of contention include what to do with the Transportation Commission. The House is calling for replacing the governor-appointed five-member board. In its place, they want to elect 15 board members. Senate lawmakers are seeking milder changes. They want to keep the current five-member setup but trim their terms from six years to two. Also, the governor no longer would be able to keep a commission member in place beyond the end of his or her term.

Another sticking point is a provision addressing red-light cameras. House lawmakers approved phasing out use of the technology after current contracts expire. The Senate wants to continue using the enforcement tool but allow offenders to take a driver safety course to avoid $75 fines.

Both chambers are on board with the removal of the Trans-Texas Corridor from state law. The controversial pet project of Gov. Rick Perry called for private contractors to build and operate billions of dollars of toll roads in the state. However, the state still could pursue tolling plans.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has criticized the corridor plan since it was unveiled in 2002. The Association cited reasons that included the proposed toll rate of 50 cents per mile for large trucks.

OOIDA also opposes the private ownership of roadways by foreign companies. Texas officials had tapped the Spanish company Cintra to design and build the first leg of the corridor.

If lawmakers agree to the provision abolishing the Transportation Commission, it would be a blow to Gov. Perry. House lawmakers voted to take the action following a state report that called for more accountability and responsiveness to lawmakers and the public.

All five current commissioners were appointed by Perry. The five highway chiefs have the final say on which roads to build, which companies to hire, and which policies to set for the agency.

Most Texans credit those commissioners with starting the state down the path toward toll roads. By 2007, state lawmakers tried to apply the brakes to those plans with a two-year moratorium. Those critical of the DOT point out that the agency was able to fend off the legislative efforts because of loopholes.

Lawmakers’ willingness to put a tombstone on the Trans-Texas Corridor is welcome news for most Texans. The planned project called for private contractors to build and operate billions of dollars of toll roads in the state.

The legislative action to give the plan the boot was well received by OOIDA.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer. “Texas truckers played a major role in reaching this point – as well as a majority of citizens in Texas.”

Both the House and Senate also would shift from TxDOT to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles duties that include motor vehicle titling, vehicle registration and oversight of trucking.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Texas in 2009, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

Editor’s Note: Please share your thoughts with us about the legislation included in this story. Comments may be sent to statelegislativedesk@ooida.com.