Texas House advances transportation overhaul bill
05/13/2009 - 9:19:05 am
The Texas House approved a bill Monday, May 11, that is designed to radically realign the Texas Department of Transportation. That bill – HB300 – now moves to the Senate.
Among the numerous provisions added to the bill on the House floor are the removal of the Trans-Texas Corridor from state law, checks against toll roads, and phasing out red light cameras.
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association had 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.
In a blow to Gov. Rick Perry, House lawmakers voted 138-6 to advance HB300, which abolish the Texas Transportation Commission. The action follows a state report that called for more accountability and responsiveness to lawmakers and the public.
All five current commissioners were appointed by Perry. His 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.
This time around, lawmakers are intent on doing away with the current system, including allowing the governor to appoint commissioners. The House plan – HB300 – calls for the five commissioners to be replaced with a single statewide commissioner who would be elected by lawmakers. There also would be 14 elected regional commissioners.
Late last week, an amendment from Rep. David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio, put a tombstone on the Trans-Texas Corridor.
House lawmakers agreed to permanently remove from state law any and all references to the controversial pet project of Gov. Perry. The planned project called for private contractors to build and operate billions of dollars of toll roads in the state.
The House action to give the plan the boot was well received by OOIDA.
“This is a day to cheer,” said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer. “Texas truckers played a major role in reaching this point as well as a majority of citizens in Texas.”
However, Spencer was quick to point out that the job is far from complete. The provisions still must remain intact after consideration in the Senate, and the governor must sign it.
The changes to Texas transportation rules do not end there. Several provisions were added to curtail toll roads.
New guidelines include 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.
While new guidelines for toll roads won approval in the House, a separate provision would extend the life of “comprehensive development agreements” for another four years.
Texas law permitting contracts with private operators is set to end this year. The extension would authorize the contracts with private companies to build, operate and profit from toll roads until 2013.
OOIDA Senior Member Danny Schnautz of Montgomery, TX, was encouraged to hear about the steps being taken at the statehouse to rein in toll projects. However, Schnautz, who is in charge of operations, sales and accounting for Clark Freight Lines in Pasadena, TX, remains wary about the lasting affect the changes would have.
“I’m wary because we haven’t educated the private tolling people to say this is a bad idea. Because we haven’t accomplished that, they are still trying to work to get what they want. They wouldn’t have conceived the whole enchilada without some open door on their side or motivating factor I don’t know about,” Schnautz told Land Line.
In all, 203 changes to the bill were offered during House floor consideration. More than 100 amendments were approved, including phasing out the use of red light cameras.
TXDOT would take authority over the enforcement tool from local governments. In addition, the state would not be permitted to extend contracts in communities or approve new contracts.
Another provision would shift from TXDOT to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles duties that include motor vehicle titling, vehicle registration and oversight of trucking.
By Keith Goble, state legislative editor Land Line Magazine