Friday, May 30, 2003

The "Highway Twins" squabble over HB 3588

Could trauma, mobility funding be derailed in transportation dispute?

by David Guenthner


Volume 7, Issue 37
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2003

A major firefight over transportation has erupted across the rotunda over the last two weeks. Funding for trauma centers and mobility projects, as well as for the tools necessary to promote the development of private toll roads and multi-modal corridors, could wind up among the casualties.

On one side is House Transportation Chairman Mike Krusee (R-Austin), whose HB 3588 envisioned new models for moving people and goods across the state and for financing transportation infrastructure.

On the other is Senate Infrastructure Development and Security Chairman Steve Ogden (R-Bryan), who wants to keep the focus on roads, and to pay for that new asphalt by borrowing money.

The stakes could exceed those apparent in a transportation battle.

In the last redistricting cycle, the biggest county in Ogden’s district changed from Brazos (his home) to Williamson (Krusee’s home). The two counties also share the new CD 32, in which a Williamson-based candidate ( John Carter ) trounced a much better funded, Brazos-based candidate ( Peter Wareing ) last spring. And the changes Ogden made strip many of the tools the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) – in which Williamson County is a major player – had counted on to develop new roads for its burgeoning population.

When Ogden saw Krusee’s bill after it came over from the House two weeks ago, he immediately began to carve out several of the more significant (and in his view, more objectionable) elements of the plan. When Krusee saw Ogden’s substitute, he thought it so obnoxious he vowed to kill what was left of his plan and let the governor decide whether to add transportation to a special session call.

As the dispute escalated, the process became more unusual. When the bill arrived in the Senate, Ogden referred three sections to Sen. Jeff Wentworth ’s (R-San Antonio) “special select subcommittee.” The Wentworth subcommittee never kicked those sections back out; rather, it drafted a committee amendment to reincorporate them.

That amendment, and several dozen others, were considered at a May 26 committee work session where Ogden announced which changes he was going to accept and roll into another massive committee amendment.

The following morning, Krusee convened his committee for its own work session, which turned into a teach-in on the damages he believed would be wrought by Ogden’s changes.

When the bill got to the Senate floor, Ogden moved the bill to third reading with dozens of amendments still pending. But he agreed to suspend the rules so that those amendments could be heard on third reading and approved by a majority rather than a supermajority vote.

The differences between the two chairmen mainly involve three areas: regional mobility authorities (RMAs), rail, and funding.

The sharpest differences involve RMAs. With the Texas Department of Transportation’s highway resources going more toward maintenance than expansion, the Krusee concept is to empower regions to organize and to grant them the tools – financial and otherwise – to develop their own transportation infrastructure. Ogden recoiled when he saw the scope of projects these RMAs could develop and the powers they would have. He went to great lengths to ensure that these entities would never become mini-TxDOTs.

In his substitute, he took away their authority to utilize exclusive development agreements and design-build contracts – both of which allow a company or consortium to manage multiple phases of a project.

He denied the RMAs the “quick take” authority whereby TxDOT and the existing turnpike authorities can condemn all tracts in the right-of-way for a project simultaneously rather than negotiate the fair-market value up front. Krusee regards quick take as necessary so that the last couple of property owners along a route can’t hold an entire project hostage in order to gouge the government for several times fair-market value.

Ogden also prohibited RMAs from having their boards meet by teleconference, from paying their executive directors more than TxDOT’s, and from converting non-tolled TxDOT highways to RMA turnpikes. He also gave the Texas Transportation Commission (TxDOT’s governing board) the authority to approve all RMA projects, to override RMA-set speed zones, and to direct and pay for an independent audit of RMA activities.

At Krusee’s work session, the executive director of the CTRMA said that the absence of these tools would cause a 12-to-18 month delay in the US 183-A bypass around Cedar Park in western Williamson County. Given that the bypass is already financially marginal as a toll road, the additional delay could prevent its development.

The second major divergence was on rail transportation. Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor initiative envisions both passenger and freight rail operating in the medians of the roadways. Krusee’s bill enabled public-private partnerships on rail projects, with an eye toward multi-modal freight rail between the U.S./Mexico border and points north and commuter rail in the Austin/San Antonio region.

Ogden, on the other hand, wants to keep the transportation focus on roads. Therefore, he put tight caps on annual expenditures on rail facilities. The Trans-Texas Corridor would be limited to $25 million per year in construction of non-highway facilities – including rail, utilities, and ancillary facilities. Otherwise, TxDOT would be restricted to $12.5 million per year on rail facility expenditures, excluding abandoned rail, private investment, and federal rail or transit funds.

Ogden banned regional mobility authorities altogether from constructing, maintaining, or operating rail facilities, although he later accepted an amendment to allow CTRMA to continue with its plans to develop a freight rail line along the Texas 130 toll road. Union Pacific owns and operates a rail line running down the middle of the heavily-congested Mopac expressway; CTRMA wants it moved out to Texas 130 so that either the Mopac rail line can be converted to commuter rail or the right-of-way can be used to construct high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Mopac.

Out of fears that TxDOT could decide to start a railroad company, Ogden also prohibited TxDOT from acquiring “rolling stock” (train cars and engines).

The third major difference relates to the Texas Mobility Fund. Both versions include a surcharge on traffic tickets and a “driver responsibility program” which imposes a points system for moving violations. About half of the funds generated by those items would go directly into an account to reimburse trauma care centers, with the other half going toward the mobility fund.

However, bond attorneys said the state could get better ratings and finance its projects less expensively if it secured the mobility fund bonds with a more stable revenue source. Therefore, the Krusee bill dedicated Department of Public Safety drivers’ license fees – which currently go into general revenue – to the mobility fund, and backfilled the general revenue fund with the new dollars.

That arrangement didn’t sit well with Ogden, a member of the budget conference committee. Fearing that the new funding streams might not produce the revenues supporters had estimated, he said that he did not want the mobility fund to punch a hole in a budget already stretched to breaking point. Instead, he insisted that the new dollars go into the mobility fund for the first two years, with the arrangement passed out of the House taking effect in FY 2006.

The second change, tacked on by Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), sunsets both the ticket surcharge and points system on Sept. 1, 2007. Whitmire, concerned about the new fees’ effects on low-income motorists, said the Legislature should revisit both fees when they are implemented. But Krusee and others doubt that the mobility fund will be able to issue bonds when the funding streams to repay those bonds could disappear in four years.

Krusee’s line on the Ogden substitute has softened. He will request a conference committee when the Senate amendments are eligible on May 30, but his main objective in the conference will be to restore the RMA powers. ?

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