Texas transportation overhaul bill advances

| Wednesday, May 04, 2011

A major transportation bill nearing passage in the Texas Legislature includes provisions to overhaul the Texas Department of Transportation, authorize private toll roads, transfer permitting for oversize and overweight vehicles, and restrict use of ticket cameras.

House lawmakers voted 121-24 on Monday, May 2, to approve the bill after discussing more than 100 amendments. SB1420 will now go before a conference committee made up of select members from the House and Senate to hash out differences in the bill.

If the chambers reach agreement on the provisions in the bill, it would advance to the governor’s desk.

The “sunset” legislation authorizes a review of TxDOT every four years.

The Texas Transportation Commission would also get a makeover. The five-member board has the final say on which roads to build, which companies to hire, and which policies to set for the agency.

Instead of the highway chiefs being appointed solely by the governor, one would be recommended by the House speaker, and one would be appointed by the lieutenant governor.

Most Texans credit those commissioners with starting the state down the path toward toll roads.

Other changes would include the following: having an inspector general appointed to offer independent scrutiny of operation; firing employees found to have lobbied the Legislature; and creating a 20-year transportation plan.

Changes have been sought for the past few years in retaliation for the board turning a deaf ear to public sentiment about the Trans-Texas Corridor, which was the controversial pet project of Gov. Rick Perry. 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.

Rep. Jodi Laubenberg, R-Rockwall, lauded the transparency created by the bill.

“Any tools we can give citizens to help hold government entities accountable is good policy,” Laubenberg said in a statement.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said he welcomes the changes to TxDOT included in the bill; however, more still needs to be done.

“Additional state scrutiny of the agency is definitely warranted,” Anchia stated.

A separate provision in the bill would allow about 20 private toll roads to be built. The so-called comprehensive development agreements would include work on a 28-mile segment of Interstate 35 East between Interstate 635 and U.S. 380; a nine-mile portion of state Highway 183 between state Highway 161 and I-35 E; five segments of the North Tarrant Expressway project; and the Grand Parkway, state Highway 99, in Houston.

Opponents say the state should not give up control of its roads to corporate interests, which often are foreign-owned.

“I think it’s a fragmented approach to how we deal with what our needs are for the state,” Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, told lawmakers during floor consideration. “It just looks pretty shabby.”

Another provision calls for shifting from TxDOT to a new Texas Department of Motor Vehicles the permitting for oversize and overweight vehicles. The transfer would include all personnel and other functions associated with regulating oversize and overweight vehicles.

TxDOT would continue to be responsible for determining routes for affected loads.

Also included in the bill is a provision to prohibit ticket cameras on state roads, unless approved after a public hearing. Towns with fewer than 40,000 residents would be forbidden to use the technology to issue tickets.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Texas, 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.

 

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