Listen in here or read the interview with William Lutz of the Lone Star Report below. Senator Carona continues to lead the PEOPLE’S fight against TxDOT’s verison of toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor!
Interview: Sen. Transportation chairman John Carona
by William Lutz
Lone Star Report
January 29, 2007
When you’re talking to Texans about cars and highways, you’re guaranteed their rapt attention. As Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) well knows.
Carona last year won Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s nod for chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security. From toll roads to gasoline taxes to red-light cameras, issues before the panel stretch with the endlessness of a West Texas interstate.
Already the new chairman has filed several noteworthy bills and called for important changes in Texas transportation policies. He discussed it with LSR this week.
LSR: How do you view the Trans-Texas Corridor?
Carona: To this day, there is still a great deal of controversy surrounding the corridor. Many people feel like their voices have not been heard. They simply have not been listened to. It’s one of the reasons why on March 1 we’re going to hold a hearing here in Austin and allow the public to come forward and speak directly to the Legislature about their concerns.
If you have rural interests – you’re a farm or ranch owner – you’re very concerned about eminent domain.
If you are a taxpayer in this state, you are very concerned about what amount of state money, if any, will go into the project, how long it will take to be built.
If you are an elected leader in one of our communities along I-35, you’re concerned about what the Trans-Texas Corridor may do in terms of diverting business away from your center of commercial activity in your small town or region.
So there are a lot of reasons to be concerned.
Of course, the underlying concern [with the corridor] being whether or not it’s good public policy to have a private company operate a major Texas roadway, as would be the [case with the] corridor should it ever be built.
LSR: What is toll equity, and what changes should be made to it?
Carona: The term toll equity has been coined in that the Transportation commission and TxDOT will have to financially supplement a toll project that may not have as great a volume in one part of the state as in others. Not all areas are really automatically attractive for toll construction. Yet at the current time with limitations on the state funding for roadways, that might be the only way build a toll [road].
The question comes in with the subjectivity of the process. Many people feel that the formula that’s been used to provide equity – the amount of supplement for one toll project in one part of the state – hasn’t necessarily been consistent with the way the money has been applied in other toll projects in other regions.
I think you’ll see the Legislature take a much more careful approach in that, and really begin to examine whether or not there ought to be toll equity and whether or not these projects are being handled in a fair and consistent fashion. And I think that’s an appropriate thing for the Legislature to do.
LSR: What are comprehensive development agreements, and what should the Legislature do with them?
Carona: Comprehensive development agreements are agreements between the public (in this case the state) and private companies to be able to build roads in this state. And these Comprehensive Development Agreements, or CDAs, are entered into after they are placed out for bid with private companies.
Most recently – again – the conversation involving CDAs has to do with major toll projects throughout the state.
But there are some concerns about these comprehensive development agreements, which the Legislature authorized into law over the last six-year period. In particular, the concern is these agreements contain provisions that limit competition. The non-compete provisions actually keep the state from building other free roads that might ultimately compete with the toll road over whatever the length of the CDA is.
[CDA length] is also part of the concern. These CDA agreements can extend 70 years. And, in fact, the Transportation commission would like to take that limit off altogether, where, in theory, private operators could come in and operate these Texas roadways for a 100-year period of time. I think that’s inappropriate. It goes far beyond what ought to be the reasonable authority of the Texas Transportation Commission. So those are the kind of changes we’ll be looking to make in the years ahead. [Carona’s SB 149 would prohibit non-compete clauses in CDAs.]< LSR: How would you characterize the relationship between the department [of transportation], the Texas Transportation Commission, and your local elected officials in North Texas? Carona: Let's say, right now, that relationship is strained. Many people feel that while TxDOT and the Transportation commission talk about local control and local decision-making, in reality, that means local as long as you agree with TxDOT or the Transportation commission. And if you disagree, of course, the commission has the ability to withhold funds that might otherwise go to your particular project. And that's the kind of relationship that people are frustrated with. And that's what prompted my recent call for the current chairman of the Transportation commission [Ric Williamson] not to remain on the commission. Upon the expiration of his current term, he perhaps [should] step aside and let someone new come in. In many quarters of the state, the Transportation commission has worn out its welcome. And I think we need to bring in new faces, and we need to bring in a policy from Austin where the folks here listen to what the local needs are and are willing to address the transportation priorities in the fashion recommended to them by locally elected officials, [who] candidly are in a position to know best what the immediate transportation needs really are. LSR: What are some of the mistakes TxDOT has made in North Texas? Carona: One concern, of course, is the proliferation of toll roads. In North Texas, we have a general attitude of support of tolls, but recently announced toll projects - like [State Highway] 121 up in Collin County [were] very unpopular. People feel like they have already paid for that through with their gasoline taxes. Another example that should have been handled differently would have been the relationship between the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) and TxDOT. Many people feel that TxDOT has attempted to shut down NTTA, that they [TxDOT leaders] consider NTTA as an impediment to what TxDOT would like to do in its statewide policy, when in reality, NTTA was developed to be able to focus on the immediate needs of North Texas, and be in the best possible position to provide efficient roadways at the lowest possible cost. That's the right mission, and NTTA has been on the right track, in my opinion. But to see the encroachment by TxDOT onto the duties previously handled by NTTA is a mistake. And that's been one of the things to cause great concern and anxiety amongst locally elected officials. LSR: Tell us about the bill you have filed [SB 257] allowing for the use of local sales taxes for transportation projects. Carona: North Texas has a major congestion problem. It's only going to get worse. What the bill I filed would do is enable local communities to hold a local vote to determine whether or not they would like to exempt from the current sales tax cap, which the state imposes, up to one penny to be used for transportation projects. If you are a region in North Texas that does not use DART [Dallas Area Rapid Transit], for example, if it's approved by a local vote of the people, you could elect to collect up to one penny and join DART. If, on the other hand, you're a city like Dallas [that] already has DART, then, of course, you've taken care of your transportation needs, but because up to one penny would have been exempted, you could again elect to use that additional one penny in capacity for economic development purposes, as other cities currently do through what's referred to as the 4-a and 4-b sales taxes. What we're trying to do is just give North Texas more options to be able to meet transportation needs. Specifically, this option would be used to further rail and mass transit in North Texas. LSR: When you're talking about changing how we do toll roads, you're not talking about abolishing all new toll roads, are you? Carona: Toll roads are a good thing, not a bad thing. But you can have too much of a good thing. The point legislators are trying to make in Austin now - and this is a view that is widespread among legislators of both political parties – is that presently we are relying too heavily on toll roads into the future to meet Texas’s transportation needs. Virtually every major project on the board today is to be built as a toll road.
That’s simply irresponsible. The public has paid for a [transportation system] through gasoline taxes that are paid into the state every time someone goes to the pump and fills his car. To continue to pay those taxes, and to have to pay tolls for every major artery going forward in the state – as least those that are built new – is in essence double taxation. And I think it’s an unfair burden on people across the state.
Some new toll roads are a good thing, but they should be part of a total transportation mix of options.
That’s why we’re proposing other things like the indexing of the current gasoline tax. The current gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991.
One of the things before the Legislature this session will be whether or not to change the law so that that gasoline tax at its current level can simply be increased at the rate of inflation going forward.
I think that’s a very reasonable compromise. Certainly, the cost of construction has increased dramatically since 1991 … Indexing the current fuel tax from this point forward to match the rate of inflation is one very modest yet responsible way to meet the roadway needs of the state.
On an annual basis, this would amount to little more than one penny per gallon of gasoline. And I think that’s a very affordable option instead of [what] we’re seeing now, which would be the proliferation of toll roads.
LSR: Are there any other initiatives you’d like to highlight?
Carona: On a local basis, one of the issues I care very passionately about is the use of red-light cameras [at stoplights]. I think it’s an issue that’s becoming increasingly controversial.
I am not an opponent of the use of red-light cameras. What I am an opponent of is the use of them as a means for cities to profit for purposes of paying for other city budget needs. Cities receive now sales tax revenue, and they receive property tax revenue. They should not be initiating yet another form of revenue, which is the hanging of red-light cameras on practically every major intersection throughout the city.
Cameras ought to be limited specifically to those areas that have a legitimate public safety concern. For those locations, and for those reasons, I support cameras.
But when they go beyond that, as a revenue-raiser, as is the case currently in the City of Dallas, surrounding cities, and the City of El Paso – all of which are either using or beginning to use red-light camera technology, [I am concerned]. Those cities are already placing substantial line items in their budget to account for the profit that they make off of these cameras.
When the use of these cameras goes toward profits as opposed to public safety, I think that’s wrong.
So one of the pieces of legislation that I’ve filed [SB 125] would be to take those surplus monies – those profits, if you would – [and] after a city recovers its costs of buying the camera and maintaining the camera, and either using those profits to fund the state’s trauma-care fund, which is what deals with traffic accidents, or as an alternative.[after all that], we need at the state level to lower the fine that’s currently on the books in most cities and cap it on a statewide basis. So cities can indeed recover the cost of the cameras and the operation, so that the profit motive is taken out.
Once you take the profit motive out, I predict we’ll see much less use of those cameras in our communities.
Editor’s note: A video version of this interview will be posted to http://www.dallasblog.com. It is the standard policy of The Lone Star Report to edit interviews for length, grammar, and clarity. So the version published here may differ slightly from the video version.