Monday, January 10, 2005

Legislature greatly expands TxDOT's powers and its bank account.

Agency gives lawmakers a shopping list

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

The relationship between the Legislature and the many state agencies it gives money and instructions to has always been a complicated one.

Perhaps no one is more interested in what the Legislature is doing, and more directly affected, than those agencies. But despite that, they are prohibited -- at least officially -- from lobbying lawmakers to get what they want.

When agency officials testify at legislative hearings, for instance, they have to be "resource witnesses," in theory just passing out objective facts.

In theory. The reality has always been different, of course. The Texas Department of Transportation, we are told, for a long time had de facto veto power over legislative notions. If the highway boys said uh-uh, legislation would quietly die.

As of last session, however, the Transportation Department has the official right to make its wishes known. And the Texas Transportation Commission, seizing this new license, at its December meeting passed a 28-page list of "mobility challenges and solutions" for the Legislature to consider when it begins its 140-day session Tuesday.

The agenda, of course, wasn't drafted by the department in a vacuum. Transportation leaders such as state Rep. Mike Krusee, the Williamson County Republican who heads up the House Transportation Committee, have been in on the discussion to some degree, so a good number of the three dozen or so recommendations will probably get a serious hearing or become law.

Some of the changes are arcane. But some would make a noticeable difference to the person on the street, or train. Overall, they would continue the trend, begun in the past two legislative sessions, of greatly expanding the Transportation Department's powers and its bank account.

* Freight rail relocation: Austin and San Marcos are not the only places where the constant parade of freight trains through town creates delays and safety concerns. And other cities likewise could use some of those freight tracks for commuter rail, as Austin would like to do.

With that in mind, the department proposes creating a $1 billion "rail relocation and improvement fund," similar to the Texas Mobility Fund being used mostly for toll roads, to move some freight trains around the rural fringes of big cities.

The fund, in a similar fashion to the mobility fund, would actually be borrowed money and would be paid back by a regular annual allocation of $100 million in state revenue. At this point, lawmakers and department officials are not specifying where that money might be found.

*Texas Mobility Fund: The Legislature found about $250 million a year for this fund last session, allowing $3 billion of borrowing. About two-thirds of that money has already been allocated to urban areas willing to create toll roads, and now the department would like to more than double the size of the fund.

Commissioners propose redirecting almost a dozen fees and tax levies that annually generate about $417 million from the general fund to the mobility fund, which would allow another $4 billion to $5 billion of borrowing.

Among those potential transfers: certificate of title fees; motor carrier permits, registration and proof of registration fees; motor vehicle rental taxes; and overweight truck permit fees.

The department, by the way, dropped its request for one fee, the Department of Public Safety traffic citation money that now goes to county governments, after county officials raised a ruckus.

It's worth noting that state law does not prohibit money from the mobility fund going to the Trans -Texas Corridor , Gov. Rick Perry's plan to build 4,000 miles of toll roads, train line and utility corridors .

* Pass-through tolls: Currently, state law allows a local government such as a county to borrow money for a highway project and then be paid back over time by the Transportation Department based on the number of vehicles that travel the new or improved road. Despite the name, the highways would not actually be toll roads.

The department now proposes allowing the reverse of that; that is, the agency would pay the up-front cost of the project, and then the local government would pay back the state based on traffic counts.

* Excess toll revenue: The agency would like to lift some restrictions on what it can do with the profits, essentially, from a toll road. That's the money remaining after debt payments and the costs of operating and maintaining the turnpike.

Right now, the law allows such excess money from state toll roads (as opposed to one operated by a regional mobility authority) to go back into the state highway fund, rather than the general fund, only if the road was paid for by issuing bonds. The department would like that money to go into the state highway fund for projects paid for wholly with gasoline tax dollars or with money from the Texas Mobility Fund.

In addition, the agency would like to be able to spend that excess money on something other than other toll roads, including rail projects. The recommendation from the department says that money would still remain in the same geographic region of the state, however.

* Regional mobility authorities: State law does not allow these newly created local transportation agencies, including the one in Central Texas , to get involved in public transportation. Under the proposed change, a mobility authority could run a passenger train system, for instance, but only if the existing transportation authority in the area voluntarily ceded this power to it.

This change is, to a great degree, motivated by the patchwork of transit providers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Some officials would like to bring all the passenger train operations in the Metroplex, existing and planned, under one umbrella. But it might have some future application in the Austin-San Antonio corridor .

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