Link to article here.
Senate bill merges variety of transportation proposals
Monday, May 25, 2009
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Two years of planning, positioning and politicking over the multibillion-dollar business of building roads in Texas will come down to a single bill in the Senate as soon as today, when members will spend hours arguing over how to build more roads for more people without spending much more money.
The Senate bill is a witches’ brew of proposals, from gas tax schemes to toll road dreams, that would further Gov. Rick Perry’s pursuit of private toll roads, give lawmakers more direct oversight of the Texas Department of Transportation and let North Texas counties ask voters to raise their own taxes to build more roads and, perhaps, more rail lines.
But the one thing it would not do is radically prune the power of the Texas Department of Transportation, and that might just be enough to kill it altogether. A version that passed the House this month would be far stricter with the 14,000-employee agency and would give local planning councils the upper hand in making decisions about roads and bridges.
Whatever the Senate approves some time early this week would head to a conference committee, where five members from each chamber will try to settle on a version. If they can’t agree, every significant idea for changing transportation policy this year would be in jeopardy.
The chambers have two enormous differences: First, the House’s determination to rein in the transportation department and with it the governor’s power to set transportation policy for Texas. The Senate approach is milder. Second, and perhaps more significant, is the desire by North Texas officials to be able to raise taxes to fund road and rail projects, with voters’ approval.
“Many of my friends in the House and the public just want to start over with the agency, rather than fix it,” said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate. “But I am not sure that is possible, or very practical. There are great people on the [Texas Transportation] Commission who really have in their hearts the best interests of Texas. So I want to help this agency and want to help turn it around.”
Weakening the department is essential, argued House transportation chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. For years, he has said, the department has played the role of “the heavy” throughout Texas, often forcing projects and approaches to projects on communities that ought to have the final say themselves.
He said he isn’t surprised the agency has found such strong allies late in the legislative session.
“TxDOT has a lot of influence and unfortunately the culture is such that they believe they are sole dictators instead of being our partners,” he said.
His views may clash with the Senate’s, but they have support from members of the public still seething over Perry’s vision for the Trans Texas Corridor, a massive private toll plan that is dead in theory but lives on in the rapidly expanding network of toll roads in places like Dallas. Nor is Pickett entirely alone in the House, where “TxDOT” has been considered a bad word for years.
Transportation committee member Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, said she’d rather see the session end with no transportation reform at all than with the mild changes envisioned by the Senate.
“I would not say that coming out of the session with nothing is a success,” she said Saturday. “But it is far more important to come out with a bill that brings substantive change in the way TxDOT operates.”
Perry may have the decisive influence on these issues. Senate transportation chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, predicted the governor would not accept any bill that greatly diminishes the role of the agency or removes his influence on what Perry has called his signature issue.
But even more of a possible deal-breaker is the proposal that means the most to North Texas, where local officials are nearly frantic as they await the result of six years of lobbying to win the authority to call tax elections for transportation projects.
Carona calls that provision – the “local-option tax bill” – his single biggest priority.
“I can tell you this: I am not going to budge on the local-option bill,” he said. “I simply won’t accept a bill that comes out of the conference committee that does not include it.”
The measure would let counties ask voters to accept a menu of tax increases including up to 10 cents per gallon of fuel. It could raise more than $500 million a year for North Texas alone, depending on which counties participate. Most North Texas counties want to use the money for rail projects, but that would require voters’ approval of a constitutional amendment.
Other senators also strongly support it. Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, said it’s all but certain that the majority of senators on the conference committee will insist that the bill include the local-option tax proposal.
But Pickett and others in the House said if Carona digs his heels in over the local-option provision, the transportation bill could die altogether.
“His priority may be local option, but I do not believe that is the House’s priority,” Pickett said.
He said he also supported a bill that would have incrementally raised gas taxes statewide to keep up with inflation, but it died because the full House would not support it. “Local option is probably similar,” he said.
Some conservative House members endorse the local-option measure as a last-ditch effort to give Dallas the tools it needs to remain economically competitive.
“The last thing I want to do is support a tax,” said Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Garland. “But I do support this.”
House members are already irked that the Senate weakened the changes to the transportation department, and they were irked again when Carona slid the local-option tax proposal onto the Senate version, in part to avoid a House debate.
If no bill at all passes, the transportation department could go out of business, since the agency is subject to the “sunset” process, a periodic review of agencies that determines their effectiveness and necessity. Perry could call a special session to focus on transportation to avoid that, but it’s more likely that lawmakers would give the agency a two-year extension, starting the fight over again in anticipation of a 2011 showdown.
For the department and its supporters, that would be fine. And even its harshest critics would rather hold out for more sweeping changes.
“TxDOT needs a complete overhaul, and it may not happen for another two to four years,” Pickett said. “Both bills have so much additional baggage at this point, we will have to see. Anything is possible.”