Monday, June 27, 2005

Senator Todd Staples, running for Ag Commissioner in 2006, spins House Bill 2702

Keeping things moving in Texas

By Todd Staples

Jun. 27, 2005
Special to the Star-Telegram Copyright 2005

This year, the Texas Legislature successfully addressed two emotional and sometimes controversial issues: the Trans-Texas Corridor and toll roads.

Thanks to House Bill 2702, just signed into law, Texas has stronger protections for private property and water rights, local tax revenue and road access, and business development opportunities along the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The Legislature listened to all sides, including the Texas Farm Bureau, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers and other agricultural groups, and addressed concerns about the new Trans-Texas Corridor road project.

We protected the rights of local residents against converting existing roads into toll roads. For urban and suburban drivers, we ensured that toll revenues will be spent in the area where they are collected. And we created a blueprint for improving railroad safety and efficiency.

The Trans-Texas Corridor allows needed roads to be completed and opened years sooner, without massive new state spending or higher gasoline taxes for consumers.

In previous generations, the farm-to-market road and federal interstate highway systems sparked stiff and emotional opposition. Today, the Trans-Texas Corridor is generating significant controversy -- some justified, some not. HB 2702 addresses the criticism, especially issues of concern to rural Texas.

Legislators protected local tax rolls, safety regulations, and access and development rights.

HB 2702 requires private Trans-Texas Corridor operators of commercial facilities to pay local property taxes and abide by local zoning and building regulations.

Private contractors may not develop commercial businesses, such as hotels or restaurants, in the corridor right of way. Local landowners do have the specific right to develop property and businesses adjacent to the corridor and within the corridor in cases in which developmental rights have been retained.

Easy access on and off the Trans-Texas Corridor is important to local communities. Texas law now requires each segment of the Trans-Texas Corridor to provide ready on and off ramps for federal and state highways and consideration of access to major farm-to-market, county and local roads where feasible and with the input of local officials.

The final corridor route has not been determined. But for private property owners along the eventual route, the state will be required to pay the fair market value for acquired property and any damaged property.

Property owners can choose to sell their property outright or receive royalty payments from revenues attributable to a segment of a toll project. This innovative solution treats land along the corridor like oil and gas lands, allowing property owners to receive ongoing royalty payments for the use of their land.

State officials will remain accountable and in charge of toll rates and collections. We mandated that the state, not private operators, will oversee toll rates, plans for collection, penalties and any changes to rates and policies.

HB 2702 helps end the controversy over converting existing non-tolled roads into toll roads. State law now prohibits converting existing roadways to toll roads unless local county commissioners and voters approve. The construction of additional tolled lanes along existing roadways is allowed, so long as motorists have access to the same or greater number of non-tolled lanes after a project is completed.

We strengthened the environmental review process for the Trans-Texas Corridor and ensured that federal and state governments maintain complete environmental oversight.

Once federal environmental approval is granted, the Texas Department of Transportation must post the final environmental impact statement on its Web site and provide notice to each state legislator and county commissioner representing an impacted area.

The protection of water rights and quality is always a priority in Texas.

Any Trans-Texas Corridor proposal involving the transporting of ground water must provide written notice to local county commissioners and water districts. Pumping ground water from the corridor right of way for private purposes is strictly prohibited.

HB 2702 also responds to the rash of railroad accidents in Texas and the need for improving freight rail systems. The state Transportation Department now has the authority to acquire, finance, construct, maintain and operate freight or passenger rail and administer most federal rail dollars coming into Texas. This move allows rail relocations and safety improvements to be planned and implemented by a single state agency.

The one thing on which everyone can agree is that Texas needs new roads and transportation solutions.

Twenty-two million people live here, and another 13 million are expected by 2040. The number of vehicles traveling our roads is up 61 percent since 1980 and growing.

New roads and toll roads have always been controversial. HB 2702 shows that reasonable rural, urban and suburban residents can work together to protect local and private property rights and get needed transportation infrastructure built years sooner.

Better transportation is on the way, and that's good news for public safety, commuter convenience and economic opportunity in every region of our state.

State Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, represents Texas Senate District 3. He is chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security and sponsored HB 2702 in the Senate.

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