Despite weeks of rhetoric from lawmakers about the importance of reaching agreement on a major transportation bill, the Texas Legislature wrapped up their regular session Monday, June 2, without a deal on the bill that once included a provision to overhaul the Texas Department of Transportation.
The biggest stumbling block for House Bill 300 turned out to be a provision that called for allowing local option fuel taxes to pay for transportation projects. Sen. John Carona, D-Dallas, said the language was essential to ease traffic congestion in urban areas.
A House-Senate conference committee recently met to work out differences in the bill. The lawmakers opted to remove the effort to permit counties to hold referendums allowing voters to determine whether or not the tax on gas and diesel should increase by as much as 10 cents per gallon.
The aftereffects of the bill’s demise are far reaching on transportation.
Despite calls from the House to give the Texas Transportation Commission an extreme makeover, the status quo won out. House lawmakers sought to replace the governor-appointed five-member board in retaliation for turning a deaf ear to public sentiment about tolls in recent years.
In its place, the House wanted to elect 15 board members.
Even with consensus from both chambers to remove the Trans-Texas Corridor from state law, the controversial pet project of Gov. Rick Perry lives on. At one time the corridor plan called for private contractors to build and operate billions of dollars of toll roads in the state.
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.
Several provisions to curtail private toll roads also won’t take effect. Controls included prohibiting non-compete clauses, limits on how long tolls can be charged, and a requirement that TXDOT submit non-toll options to the Legislature for evaluation. In addition, portions of public highways could be converted into toll roads only as long as the public highway consists of at least the same number of lanes that will not have tolls.
Also falling by the wayside was a plan to shift from TxDOT to a new Texas Department of Motor Vehicles duties that include motor vehicle titling, vehicle registration and oversight of trucking.
Abolishment of the Transportation Commission would have been a blow to Gov. Perry. House lawmakers voted to pursue changes 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.
It could be a while before lawmakers get another crack at implementing changes at TxDOT. Short of a special session to address these issues, lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Austin until the next regular session convenes in 2011.
To view other legislative activities of interest for Texas in 2009, click here.
– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor
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