'Outside the box' and off the wall...
September 04, 2007
By Josh Hixson, Staff Writer
Legislators in Austin and Washington are questioning a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) plan to enact a federal law allowing the state agency to “buy back” interstate highways and then convert them to toll roads.
The plan was first introduced by TxDOT in a February “Forward Momentum” report.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said Friday she will file a bill preventing such a plan.
“I intend to immediately introduce as free-standing legislation my amendment that the Senate passed in 2005 to specifically prohibit states from tolling existing interstate highways,” said Hutchison in a press statement.
Tuesday, Texas senators and representatives called the plan “ridiculous” and said they are losing confidence in TxDOT, suggesting the department is in need of legislative oversight.
“I think it is a ridiculous idea,” said State Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. “Texas taxpayers have had to pay for them once. To ask them to pay for them again is as clear an example of double taxation as one could find.” Carona said the state’s gasoline tax — which has not been raised in more than a decade — could provide an answer to the $86 billion shortfall in Texas highway funding. Carona proposed a constitutional amendment prohibiting misappropriation of the tax, an initial five to 10 cent increase, and an indexing of the tax that would allow it to keep up with the current rate of inflation.
“By doing those three things we would substantially decrease the need for tollway projects in the state,” Carona said.
State Rep. Burt Solomons (R-Carrollton) said the plan has made himself and other legislators question TxDOT’s judgment.
“I know these guys in the staff rooms think that they are thinking outside the box. But this hasn’t been real thought out,” Solomons said. “I think (TxDOT’s) priorities are headed in the wrong direction.”
Solomon said tolling solutions have become too high a priority for the transportation department.
“TxDOT has lost the confidence of Texas legislative members,” Solomans said. “These kinds of ideas help create that thought process that they have just lost control over there. I think that comes from the leadership on down in TxDOT. They seem to be in their own world.”
TxDOT argues that by proposing the bill they will give local leaders and citizens the chance to decide if their highways should be tolled.
“Transportation needs to be done with more foresight and options and less emotion,” said Chris Lippincott, a spokesman for TxDOT. “All that we are trying to do is to give local leaders an array of tools that they can deploy to solve their transportation problems.”
Lippincott said the legislation would require votes from county commissioners and residents in a referendum, before a highway could be converted to a toll road.
State Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) said TxDOT is using a trial and error process for testing new answers to their budget problem.
“I have gotten the distinct impression of late that this is a trial balloon,” Shapiro said. “You let it go into the air and see if it will float. In my opinion (interstate tolling) is not a viable option. All that it does is cause angst not only for the legislature and congress, but for everyday citizens.”
Carona, Shapiro and Solomons agree that TxDOT will be held accountable during its next Sunset Review, in the 2008-09 session.
“I think what we are looking at is to scrutinize, scrub and review many of their current policies… When you review you have the opportunity to make dramatic changes and I think the legislature is looking for dramatic changes,” Shapiro said.
Solomons said TxDOT the consensus among legislators is largely against letting TxDOT remain on its current course.
“Most of the members of the legislature that I talk to think that there should be some major changes,” Solomons said. “TxDOT seems to be going in a different direction than what the legislature and public officials need to be done.”
Contact Josh Hixson at Jhixson@acnpapers.com
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