Will toll roads trump education in the 79th Legislature?
TxDOT eyes freight lines
Plan to move railroads from urban centers is among pricey priorities
By LUCAS WALL Staff
Correct: CORRECTION: John Langmore is an independent land use and transportation consultant. This story misstated his position. Correction published 2/12/05.
Texas transportation officials want $100 million a year to relocate railroad lines that clog traffic in Houston and other urban areas.
The appropriation is among the Texas Department of Transportation's legislative requests, which also include a push to increase TxDOT's ability to finance toll roads.
Ric Williamson of Weatherford, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, acknowledged it's not going to be easy to ask for more money as the Legislature continues struggling with how to fund public education.
But the commission contends the benefits of rail relocation are so enormous - including potentially moving more freight from trucks to trains, which would reduce traffic and wear and tear on state highways - that lawmakers have to find the money this year so the process can get started.
The effort has the support of officials in Houston and Texas ' other large metropolitan areas, who want freight lines consolidated into grade-separated corridors.
That would speed freight delivery and reduce grade-level railroad crossings that stop traffic and are dangerous to cars, officials say. And rerouting some freight lines could free up urban tracks for passenger service such as commuter rail.
TxDOT also wants to increase the money it can spend on toll roads by abolishing a law capping state tollway expenditures at $800 million per year. "Transportation is a little too important right now to have an artificial limitation like that," Williamson said.
Commissioner John Johnson of Houston said transportation historically has been a topic of high interest among many legislators, and that makes it easier to sell the department's wish list.
"We believe that our agenda is going to be heard, and hopefully most of it will be passed," Johnson said. "Transportation is a very important piece of the state's business."
TxDOT changes gears
The requested freight line appropriation marks a shift in the department's focus. TxDOT historically has been a highway agency rather than a multimodal transportation department. This session, however, it wants to leap into the freight railroad business by obtaining the funds to help private railroads relocate their tracks outside city centers.
It is asking the Legislature to appropriate $100 million a year from general revenue to establish a rail relocation bonding program, which would have to be approved by voters as an amendment to the state constitution. Legislators also would have to change state laws that limit the amount of money TxDOT may spend on nonhighway projects.
"This cycle our focal point is absolutely going to be on rail," Williamson said. "The issue almost sells itself. There is a growing realization across the state if we could put freight rail outside urban centers, we would. And there's growing realization with the price of oil and gas and air-quality issues, the time to build a market-friendly commuter rail system is now."
Looking at the gas tax
John Langmore, a consultant to House Transportation Chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock (SEE CORRECTION), said the rail relocation fund will be a high priority but funding will be a challenge.
"These rail lines currently run through urban centers, making their use for other purposes very attractive," Langmore recently told the Houston-Galveston Area Council's Transportation Policy Council. "But that makes it expensive to do anything with that. We are not going to, won't be able to, create new taxes, yet we're looking at $20 billion statewide to deal with all the rail relocations."
Langmore said Krusee intends to draft legislation indexing the state gasoline tax to inflation in the construction industry. The current 20-cent tax - 15 cents for transportation and public safety, 5 cents for schools - has not been raised since 1991. That means the purchasing power of the gas tax has declined thanks to 14 years of inflation.
"This could potentially be a tough sell, but he's going to pursue that," Langmore said.
Gov. Rick Perry opposes the idea, however, and it is not on the TxDOT agenda. Instead, its recommendations focus on finding other ways to pay.
"To meet current statewide transportation needs, the state gas tax would have to increase by about $1 per gallon," according to the department's report to the House and Senate. "The cost to drivers would be exorbitant."
Tolls also represent a cost to drivers, but only to the ones using a certain road. The state has been moving toward toll roads in the past few years. Texas 130, a 49-mile Interstate 35 bypass around Austin, is under construction as a tollway.
In December, commissioners approved negotiating a development agreement with a Spanish company to build the first segment of the Trans -Texas Corridor from Dallas to San Antonio. The company would privately finance a 316-mile tollway, estimated to cost $6 billion, in exchange for the toll revenue for 50 years. The corridor is a major initiative by Perry to create a statewide network of highways, railroads and pipelines.
Texas Mobility Fund
TxDOT wants the authority to broker more deals like the Dallas-San Antonio toll road.
The department also wants the Legislature to direct more money into the Texas Mobility Fund, which voters authorized in a 2001 constitutional amendment that let TxDOT issue bonds to help build highways.
Legislators began funding it in 2003 by funneling certain transportation revenues into the fund and by adding a surcharge to some traffic tickets.
The commission soon plans to issue up to $ 3billion in bonds, much of which would be loaned to local governments for toll roads and High Occupancy Toll lanes, which allow carpools and buses to travel for free but require a toll from single-occupant vehicles. Some are under construction on the Katy Freeway in west Houston.
Commissioner Robert Nichols of Jacksonville worries it could be another 10 to 15 years before the next round of projects could be financed out of the Mobility Fund unless more cash flows into it. TxDOT recommends directing more transportation taxes and fees into the fund.
TOPPING THE LIST
Some Transportation Department priorities for the 2005 session:
Rail relocation: Appropriate $100 million per year for a bonding program to move freight rail lines out of urban centers
Rail expenditures: Remove $12.5 million annual limit on state railroad spending
Toll investment: Remove $800 million annual cap on state investment in tollways
Toll revenue: Authorize use of surplus toll revenue on nontollway projects
Reimbursements: Allow the state to build a highway and be paid back later by local government or private company
Texas Mobility Fund: Direct more transportation fees and taxes into the fund