Thursday, December 02, 2004

"The controversy over toll roads is far from over."

Senate transportation report supports tolls


by William Lutz

The Lone Star Report
Volume 9, Issue 16
Copyright 2004

To toll or not to toll. How to fund Texas highways is rapidly becoming one of the most controversial questions in Texas politics – one that divides many Republicans.

The House Transportation Committee – not surprisingly – endorsed the existing provisions of HB 3588, including the tolling provisions, in its interim report which was released on Nov. 17.

In 2003, the House leadership supported Gov. Rick Perry ’s vision to finance much of Texas’ transportation infrastructure through expanded tolling (though many rank-and-file House members probably were not aware of the degree to which tolling would dominate road plans).

The Senate was a wholly different story. The chamber eventually passed HB 3588 but looked at it much more carefully and had to be coaxed into accepting some of its provisions.

In many ways, that fact increases the significance attached to the Senate Infrastructure Development and Security Committee’s report released Dec. 1. For Perry, the good news is that the committee basically endorses HB 3588 and the tolling contained therein. And it did so unanimously. It even proposed raising the cap on toll equity – the amount of tax dollars used to help pay for toll roads.

“Secure, viable road and communications systems are vital to the safety and security of Texas citizens and visitors,” said new chairman Todd Staples (R-Palestine). “Our committee has studied these issues in depth and now offers recommendations to improve our roadways and homeland security measures. Our economic prosperity is contingent on our ability to reduce congestion and enhance the safe and efficient movement of people and goods.”

The bad news is the controversy over toll roads is far from over. Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale (R-Houston) has filed a bill prohibiting the conversion of SH 249 in the Houston area, and several other legislators have expressed concerns to the press about how tolling is being applied in their districts.

The Senate report supports the concept of tolling but does call for clarifying the process of toll conversion – where a free highway becomes a toll road. Specifically, the committee proposes clarifying what constitutes an acceptable free alternative to a toll road. It also suggests ensuring that all revenue from a converted project go to benefit users of that facility.

The committee also tackles another potentially controversial topic – the diversion of gas tax money to the Available School Fund. It recommends trying to find an alternative source of revenue to fund schools so that all of the gas tax money can go toward roads. It also suggests a separate interim committee to look at the gas tax and the possibility that revenues could decline with more fuel-efficient cars. The committee would explore alternatives for financing transportation.

The report endorses the Trans-Texas corridor program and encourages Congress to pass legislation that increases the gas tax equity, i.e. the percentage of gas tax paid by Texans used on Texas roads.

The committee recommends expanding the use of rail in the Texas transportation system. It also recommends examining the diversion of transportation-related taxes into non-transportation uses and trying to put some of that money either into the Texas Mobility Fund or the State Highway Fund.

The committee opposes changing the identification required to obtain a Texas Drivers License. Some legislators, primarily Democrats, want to give the Matricula Consular , a Mexican document often issued to illegal immigrants, the same status as a U.S. Passport or military ID card.

The report quotes Steve McGraw , former assistant director of the Office of Intelligence for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as saying, “The ability of foreign nationals to use the matricula consular card to create a well-documented, but fictitious, identity in the United States provides an opportunity for terrorists to move freely within the United States without name-based watch lists that are disseminated to local police officers. It also allows them to board planes without revealing their true identities.”

Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) disagreed with the committee’s recommendation on this issue and requested his comments be included in the report. “In essence, I strongly believe that acceptance of the Matricula would enhance security, public safety, and the economy,” he wrote. “The fact is , I know of no Mexican national who has been legally indicted for any terrorist ties since 9/11.” O

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