Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Options in the bill may be out of step with Perry’s ideas" ..."he wants a user-fee [i.e. toll tax] system of funding transportation."

Gov. Perry taking 'hard look' at local-option rail legislation


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry’s office is taking a "hard look" at a sweeping transportation bill that would finance roads and rail lines in North Texas out of concern that it will be widened to other areas of the state and will include taxes and fees that go beyond Perry’s "vision" of transportation funding.

The Texas Local Option Transportation Act was unveiled Monday. Sponsors intend for it to put North Texas on a path toward a regional rail network and billions of dollars in road improvements starting in 2011.

Supporters released a poll this week of North Texans who signaled strong support for a regional rail system to ease pollution and traffic congestion.

In interviews last month, Perry supported creating a locally funded regional rail system in North Texas. Since then, the plan has changed and broadened, prompting Perry to give it a "lot more scrutiny," his spokeswoman Allison Castle said Thursday.

A money problem

The local-option bill would allow counties to choose different ways to finance transportation improvements and to call elections to get voter approval for the plans. Funding options include higher motor-fuels taxes, parking fees, vehicle-emissions fees, driver’s license fees and a new "impact fee" of up to $250 when cars are registered in Texas for the first time.

Perry supports the concept of paying for local projects with fees charged to users of the improvements, said Jeremiah Kuntz, his transportation adviser. But the options in the bill may be out of step with Perry’s ideas, he said.

"The governor, when looking at transportation, has consistently said he is in favor of local control, he wants to encourage competition and he wants a user-fee system of funding transportation," Kuntz said.

The legislation, he said, "tends to veer away" from user fees and relies on more traditional transportation funding, such as gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.

As for the impact fee on new residents, Kuntz said, that is "probably the furthest thing from a user fee you can get. Just by the mere fact that you’ve moved to Texas, you have to pay a fee to drive."

Also, he said, allowing a local option for fuel taxes might result in the price of gas differing greatly in neighboring counties.

North Texas legislators have said transportation is a top priority in this legislative session. Perry’s office will work with the bill’s sponsors to try to resolve disagreements, Castle said.

Meant for North Texas

State Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, the House sponsor of the bill, said a "few other areas of the state" have asked to be included in the local-option measure.

But she stressed, "The idea was born in North Texas for North Texas. We don’t want to impose this on anyone who doesn’t need it.

"We’re early in the process and we’re going to listen to anyone and everyone’s concerns and try our best to address them," Truitt said.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, is the Senate bill sponsor.

Strong support found

HillCo Partners, an Austin lobbying firm representing North Texas cities supporting the measure, released a poll this week showing that 85 percent of North Texans surveyed support a rail system as "the most effective method" to cut traffic congestion and pollution.

Nearly 90 percent of the respondents supported local elections to create and pay for the system. A driver’s license fee and vehicle registration fee were the top choices to pay for the rail system.

Respondents were also asked how much they would be willing to pay in higher fees or taxes to finance a rail system.

Half said they would be willing to pay $50 to $75 annually, and 35 percent said they would pay less than $50.

Fifty-three percent said they would be willing to pay 3 to 5 cents per gallon in added gas taxes to fund the project, and 63 percent said they would pay $50 or more in new driver’s license fees.

The poll, conducted Jan. 24-28, surveyed 1,600 registered voters in Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Johnson and Tarrant counties. They are considered likely voters but otherwise were chosen at random. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 2.45 percent.
DAVE MONTGOMERY, 512-476-4294

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