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Funding for North Texas roads, rail faces rising opposition
By Dave Montgomery
March 21, 2009
AUSTIN — A month after it was introduced with a burst of fanfare from North Texas officials, supporters of a major transportation funding bill are now confronting the challenges of trying to advance the measure in an economic downturn against emerging opposition on several fronts.The bill, which has undergone substantial revision since it was unveiled in a Feb. 16 press conference at Dallas-Forth Worth Airport, would allow countywide elections in which voters would decide on a menu of fees and taxes to finance road and rail improvements. It was originally intended for North Texas but has been broadened to include the San Antonio and Austin areas.
Gov. Rick Perry, who supported the original concept of locally-approved financing for North Texas rail projects, began taking a hard look at the measure because of the proposed fee increases and the inclusion of other areas. His spokeswoman, Allison Castle, said Perry is committed to working with the bill’s Senate sponsor on Metroplex transit issues, but “has concerns about the bill.”
Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, the House sponsor, was questioned about the measure at a recent meeting of the Tarrant County Republican Executive Committee. Of the more than 300 precinct chairs who compose the committee, “in excess of 50 percent” are opposed to the bill, said Tarrant County Republican Chairwoman Stephanie Klick, herself included.
“Our precinct chairmen are pretty skeptical,” said Klick. “Every day we’re hearing about a new proposal to raise taxes out of D.C. People feel kind of tapped out right now financially. This is not a time to be raising taxes.”
Truitt wasn’t discouraged by the views espressed at that meeting, though. “I didn’t perceive it to be a bad meeting at all,” she said in a phone interview Friday. “People recognize we have a serious problem (with transportation) and we need to do something about it. I invited them to be part of the process so we could incorporate their thoughts and concerns in the bill.”
Although the most visible opposition is coming from conservative circles, Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said there is also concern among urban Democratic lawmakers worried about the impact of added fees on low- and middle-income constituents. Veasey is co-sponsoring an alternative that would base funding on sales taxes.
“I’d say the buzz among the members right now is that it’s not looking too good,” Veasey said of the bill’s chances for passage before the Legislature adjourns just over two months from now. “With the economy the way it is right now, it’s really driving a lot of members’ decision on it,” he said.
Veasey, a member of the House Democratic leadership team, said that “all of us would like to support our mayors and county commissioners” who strongly support the bill. But opposition to increased fees, he said, was virtually unanimous among his East Fort Worth constituents at two town hall meetings before the session started. “There was not one person in the room,” he said, who thought “this was a good idea.”
From the outset, supporters have touted the measure as vital to help the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington Metroplex finance road projects and more than 200 miles of commuter rail to help the nation’s fourth most populous region escape from gridlock and pollution. They have repeatedly portrayed it as a work in progress, inviting critics to help them smooth out objectionable features.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a pro-business research institute, and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a watchdog organization, have aggressively attacked the bill, saying it would impose an added tax burden on citizens trying to struggle through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Supporters confident of eventual passage
Supporters have countered those concerns by pointing out that the bill leaves it up to local voters on whether or not to approve the fees or taxes. The “absolute earliest” elections wouldn’t be held until 2010 or 2011, said Truitt, adding that local leaders aren’t likely to call an election for tax and fees increases if the economy is still in the tank. “Pretending that the Metroplex is not going to grow and the infrastructure is just going to pop up by itself is a short-sided bad mistake,” she said. She dismisses speculation that the bill is trouble, saying it’s chances are “improving greatly” as sponsors continue to refine its contents. Of conservative think tanks opposed to the measure, she says: “I think they need to do more thinking and less tanking.”
Truitt and the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, have both expressed frustration with those who they say are attacking the bill without offering to improve it. “People who stand back and throw rocks are not helping the process,” said Truitt.
The bill underwent its first hearing before Carona’s committee last week, with a large delegation of municipal and county officials from North Texas testifying in its behalf. Carona said he is hopeful that the bill could come up for a vote in his committee on Wednesday but committee staff members said continuing refinements could delay the vote until the following week.
More than 30 cities and communities in the Metroplex, including Fort Worth and Arlington, have passed resolutions supporting the bill. Leaders in fast-growing Collin County are apparently divided: County Judge Keith Self testified against the bill at last week’s committee hearing while Commissioner Jerry Hoagland supported it and accused opponents of engaging in “scare tactics.”
Some lawmakers are taking a wait and see attitude. Rep. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, announced dissatisfaction with an early version of the bill but noted last week that the bill is continuing to change. He said he will wait to see the finished product before making his decision.
Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, says he hopes the bill will ultimately pass but acknowledged that it’s difficult to predict the outcome.
“I’m a big supporter of it and I think it’s imperative that we pass something this session,” he said. “I think it’s still in good shape but it’s never easy to pass something like that. There are some things you just can’t predict about the Texas Legislature and that’s one of them. I just cannot tell.”
Transportation bill background
A bill allowing local voters to fund billions of dollars in road and rail projects tops the legislative priority list for governmental leaders and chambers of commerce in North Texas and elsewhere in the Metroplex. Here’s a look at what it does and substantial changes chances since it was introduced.
HB9 by Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller. SB855 by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas.
Summary: Would allow designated counties to hold elections in which voters would decide on proposed fees and taxes to fund road and rail projects. It applies specifically to counties in North Texas and two Central Texas counties: Travis (Austin) and Bexar (San Antonio). El Paso and Houston are also interested in being included.
The proposed county ballot would ask voters to approve any combination of local-option funding from the following six fees:
■ A county tax on gasoline sales, not less than one-tenth of a cent per gallon or more than 10 cents per gallon.
■ A “mobililty improvement fee” on vehicle registrations ranging from $1 to $60.
■ An added parking fee of up $2 per day at municipal and county parking lots used by the public. Would not include parking meters.
■ A vehicle emissions fee between $1 and $15, based on the amount of pollutants released by the vehicle.
■ A drivers license renewal fee.
■ An “impact fee” on new residents moving into Texas from another state or country. Under a revised bill introduced by Carona last week, counties would not be able to use the fees for anything other than the designated projects. The fees would expire after the improvements are completed or the bonds are paid off.
Carona’s reworked bill, called a “committee substitute,” also:
■ Includes a “low-income relief” component which would allow county commissioners courts to exempt low- and moderate-income residents with “significant financial hardship” from several of the fees. The exemption would not apply to the fuel tax or parking fee.
■ Requires annual audit reports detailing use of the local-option revenue and progress on the transportation projects.
■ For North Texas counties, would create “project and ballot selection committees” composed of city, county and transit officials under guidelines based on population. County commissioners courts and the cities would form the committees to select the projects and prepare a ballot proposition for the local option election.
■ Includes a “city override” if a county commissioners court declines to participate in the election process. The governments of one or more cities encompassing at least 60 percent of the county’s population could pass a resolution establishing a joint project selection and ballot committee.
Supporters: The improvements are urgently needed to keep the North Texas economy – one of the most robust in the nation – from strangling under the weight of traffic congestion and pollution. The legislation is not a tax bill and the proposed fees and tax increases would not go into effect unless they are approved by voters at the local level. It gives local voters the right to decide on transportation options and would enable them to bypass the need for toll roads and reliance on overburdened state and federal transportation funds.
Opponents: With Texas beginning to feel the impact of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, this is the worst time to ask voters to consider more fees and taxes. The state could provide billions of dollars to help pay for local projects by ending diversion of gas tax revenue for non-transportation uses. The proposal has grown from a North Texas-only measure to include Bexar and Travis counties and could become statewide in scope as other areas want in, submerging the local option concept.