Saturday, May 10, 2003

House Bill 3588 on Road to Approval

Transit plan on road to approval



Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2003

AUSTIN--What was touted as "the biggest transportation bill in the history of the state" received preliminary approval by the House on Friday. The legislation would change the way the state pays for highways and other transportation projects.

The flagship part of the measure, House Bill 3588, establishes guidelines for the 4,000-mile, $175 billion Trans Texas Corridor Plan, Gov. Rick Perry's vision for creating a separate network of corridors that would roughly parallel existing interstate highways.

The bill, approved on a voice vote after seven hours of discussion, also establishes a Driver Responsibility Act that would use fines paid by drunken drivers and multiple traffic offenders to fund transportation projects and help overburdened trauma centers.

"In the '50s and '60s, Texas built thousands and thousands of lane miles, and it has been the basis for [economic] growth in the last 50 years," said Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, the bill's sponsor.

"That system that we built is now overloaded and on the brink of collapse," he said. "This bill presents solutions to the crisis."

The bill, which is expected to get final approval in the House today and then go to the Senate for consideration, would pump $240 million a year into the now-empty Texas Mobility Fund and $220 million more a year into trauma-care accounts.

With the state facing a $9.9 billion funding shortfall, several House Democrats questioned why the money could not be used to help people who are needy.

"I just want people to understand that the amount of money that comes out of this bill is exactly the amount of money that could go to uninsured children," Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said.

The legislation gives the Texas Transportation Commission and Texas Department of Transportation broad powers in financing Perry's corridor plan.

The plan is designed to allow long-haul traffic to avoid congested metropolitan areas. It has been described as the most ambitious surface-transportation proposal ever in Texas and the most sweeping in the nation since the Eisenhower-era creation of the interstate highway system.

Under the bill, the transportation commission could appropriate up to 20 percent of the state's highway reimbursements from Washington, levy tolls and other user fees, accept donations and private investments, collect money from motorists who get excessive tickets, tap the Texas Mobility Fund and issue debt secured by fees.

The Driver Responsibility Act, sponsored by Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple, would establish a point system in which drivers would be penalized $300 for racking up multiple traffic violations. Seat-belt violations and tickets for driving less than 10 percent over the speed limit would be exempt.

The act is one of two sources of revenue in the 148-page legislation. The other source is a $30 increase in fines for speeding tickets.

Krusee said the bill would "maximize private-sector investment" to build the statewide network of corridors . It would also empower regional mobility authorities and give the transportation department authority over the state's rail lines "so we can take trucks off our roads and reduce congestion," he said.

Opponents say the bill would provide too few protections for property owners because the transportation commission would be given broad powers to take land for highway purposes.

Coleman said the Driver Responsibility Act would unfairly target minorities, who often live in high-crime areas and are subject to more frequent police and traffic stops than residents of more affluent neighborhoods.

Backers of the bill, however, said it would curb traffic-related injuries and help trauma centers.

"Since these drivers are 34 percent of all the costs of these emergency rooms, when there are fewer injuries, the ERs will have fewer costs," Delisi said.

Now, traffic fines are split equally between the mobility fund and trauma care. Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, tried to send a higher percentage of traffic fines to trauma centers -- 66 percent for trauma care and 33 percent for the mobility fund -- but failed.

"We're talking about exploiting people who have encountered difficulty with the law in order to build highways," Burnam said.

Rep. Mike Wise, D-Weslaco, successfully added an amendment allowing foreign nationals to use passports, consular identification cards or national ID cards to get Texas driver's licenses. The licenses also would have the name of the country where the holder is a citizen.

Perry vetoed a similar measure last session. As Perry aides lobbied against the amendment Friday in the hall behind the House Chamber, the House soundly approved the amendment 99-38. The only member of the Tarrant County delegation to vote against it was Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington.

A provision that would increase fines for motorists who illegally pass a stopped school bus was also added to the bill. That measure had been bogged down for two months in the House Calendars Committee in what its author -- Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, the House Democratic Caucus chairman -- said was partisan retribution.

On Friday, Krusee let Dunnam add the school bus measure to the omnibus bill and it was approved with no objection.

Attempts to ban billboards, construct a bridge over the Rio Grande and divert traffic fines to the Children's Health Insurance Program were unsuccessful.

Until now, Texas transportation has been exclusively a pay-as-you-go system. In 2001, when legislators created the Texas Mobility Fund, it was generally understood that the fund would accept contributions that could be used as leverage for debt.

Because lawmakers appropriated no funds for the Texas Mobility Fund during the previous session, however, the fund has sat empty.

At the time, Perry and his supporters called the fund a way to bridge the gap between the soaring cost of highway projects and dwindling state highway funds. No mention of using the fund to advance the Trans Texas Corridor Plan was made when the fund was sold to voters as Proposition 15.

The corridor plan allows for reverse-financing tools similar to those used by airports to build runways and other airfield projects.

"We're literally at a fork in the road, and we can take one of two paths," Krusee said. "One path leads to increased congestion leading to economic stagnation and decay.

"The other path, that we've laid out in this bill, builds an infrastructure faster and cheaper, increases mobility, and provides economic opportunity."

Transportation bill highlights

* Establishes guidelines for the Trans Texas Corridor Plan.

* Establishes a Driver Responsibility Act, which generates state funding through a point system for traffic violations and penalizes repeat traffic offenders.

* Raises the cost of speeding tickets by $30.

* Transfers rail authority from the Texas Railroad Commission to the Texas Department of Transportation.

* Gives authority to regional mobility authorities to acquire property through eminent domain and to issue bonds.

Karen Brooks, (956) 728-1007

Bryon Okada, (817) 685-3853

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