Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Massive transportation bill making its way to Governor Perry.

Proposal may generate billions more for roads

Transportation funding overhaul could require bad drivers to pay extra

June 3, 2003

TONY HARTZEL Transportation Writer
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2003

Long-awaited road projects such as the LBJ Freeway reconstruction could get a huge boost under a massive transportation bill making its way to Gov. Rick Perry.

The legislation, which cleared the House and Senate on Sunday, will raise billions of dollars for road projects, part of it coming from bad drivers who must pay more to keep their licenses.

The bill allows the state to issue $5 billion in bonds backed by future federal road money. In addition, the state could get a one-time $2 billion boost by issuing bonds based on revenue from the bad-drivers fees. In comparison, the Texas Department of Transportation in 2002 spent $5 billion on road construction, maintenance and related expenses.

"The impact of this bill will be felt in a short period of time, given the time it usually takes projects to work through the pipeline," said Texas Transportation Commission Chairman John Johnson. "This will move projects that are ready to go but without funding."

Delayed revenue flow

The additional revenue could begin flowing by the end of the year, but a large portion of it probably won't start flowing for several years. First, voters must approve a constitutional amendment giving the state the power to issue the road bonds based on future federal transportation funds. Also, the state must gather several years of revenue history before it can issue bonds backed by higher driver's license fees, Mr. Johnson said.

State Transportation Department planners have proposed a $1.7 billion reconstruction of LBJ Freeway, including a pair of three-lane tunnels under part of the highway. Until now, they had difficulty paying for such massive projects without affecting other road-construction plans.

But now, Texas' transportation system and the way it is financed get an overhaul with the 127-page bill. Its importance meant that Mr. Perry watched the bill's progress closely.

"It's one of Governor Perry's big priorities, and it has been from the beginning," said Kris Heckmann, the governor's transportation policy director.

Penalizing bad drivers

Bad drivers will feel the brunt of the state's new fund raising for roads and for trauma care centers. State officials estimate that in the first two years, the bill will add $300 million for trauma centers and another $300 million for highway projects. The highway money would then be used to issue $2 billion to $3 billion in bonds.

Beginning Sept. 1, the bill would tack on points to a driver's license for certain infractions. Moving violations such as speeding are two points, and moving violations that result in an accident are three points. Motorists caught speeding receive points only if they are driving 10 percent or more above the posted speed limit.

Drivers who receive six points within three years must pay $100, and $25 for each additional point. The fines are assessed for each year that a driver amasses more than the minimum points.

Motorists convicted of driving while intoxicated face much larger fines - $1,000 a year for three years under the first conviction, and $1,500 a year after that. Penalties would reach $2,000 if a driver's blood alcohol level exceeded twice the legal limit.

Supporters of the measure argue that only bad drivers will face the additional penalties and that they receive points only for convictions. Points will not be assessed if motorists take defensive driving to keep an offense off their record.

With the points program, lawmakers have found a way to devote money to the Texas Mobility Fund. The fund was created two years ago, and voters approved it in a constitutional amendment election. But it has sat unfinanced since then, and its prospects of having a steady stream of revenue looked slim as the state battled its budget woes this year.

"It's been a long-term goal of the state to get more money in the pot," said Dallas Regional Mobility Coalition Executive Director James McCarley.

The other bonding provision has limits to its use. It allows the state to pledge future federal gas tax revenue for $5 billion in bonds, but the money can be used in only a few categories: in emergencies such as the collapse of a bridge; to attract more federal funds that the state otherwise wouldn't receive; to build a road project as part of an economic development incentive to lure a business to Texas; to widen state highways that connect small towns; and to build a road that creates its own toll revenue.

New powers

The bill also means that for the first time, the Texas Department of Transportation will have some authority to help build rail projects, but the agency's financial participation cannot exceed certain levels. But the state would be able to buy land in the middle of a highway project and prepare it for rail lines, a vision laid out in Gov. Perry's Trans Texas Corridor plan.

Regional mobility authorities also get more power under the bill. The agencies, which can be created locally, help build highway and toll road projects, and could have some roles in mass transit planning. The provisions probably won't have much effect in North Texas because its existing transit agencies and the North Texas Tollway Authority perform most of those functions already.

The bill also allows for local governments to build a road and have the state pay them back over time according to how many vehicles use it, a concept known as shadow tolling.

The bill's myriad components will help Texas keep up with the demand for new infrastructure, Mr. Johnson said.

"As far as advancing our ability to deal with mobility challenges our state faces, we need these tools. Right now, we are continuing to tread water or losing ground," he said.

E-mail thartzel@dallasnews.com

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Copyright 2003 The Dallas Morning News