Sunday, June 07, 2009

"Twisted pieces of transportation news."

Probing the legislative pileup for transportation news


Less money for TxDOT (if it survives!), a 'new' Cap Metro board and little money for moving rail, but not much else.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

After a post-sine die nap or two, I spent some time last week sifting through the now-cooling heap of wreckage that is the 81st meeting of the Texas Legislature, looking for twisted pieces of transportation news. Some of what I found:

$14 billion of spendable cash for the Texas Department of Transportation. Sounds impressive until you realize that's about $2 billion less than the agency had in the current two-year budget, thanks to the last-minute House-Senate snit over borrowing that Texas voters OK'd in 2007. And without the federal stimulus money, the falloff would have been $3 billion, or about 18 percent.

Unless Gov. Rick Perry decides to call a special session to fix the Proposition 12 problem (and, oh yes, keep the Texas Department of Transportation officially a going concern), it'll only get worse before lawmakers convene again. Gas tax revenue, which continued to grow a couple percent annually this decade because of population growth, has begun to drop. Higher gas prices, the recession and more fuel-efficient cars have finally combined to lower fuel usage. With the Obama administration mandating what amounts to a 50 percent increase in car and light truck fuel efficiency by 2016, the slide should steepen.

But with all the distrust by legislators of TxDOT, and the general anti-tax stance of the governor and a majority of the Legislature, no one was willing to even take a vote on increasing gas taxes or fees for transportation. Will they have a different mindset in 2011? Don't count on it.

John Carona may not be around next session to continue what to date has been a quixotic crusade for more transportation funding. The Dallas Republican, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, was infuriated in the session's final days after his bill to let counties raise the gas tax or fees for transportation died. In interviews, Carona had blunt and uncomplimentary words for a lot of colleagues, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Dewhurst, if he's still running the Texas Senate (he'll probably run for U.S. Senate instead), might not be in a mood to give Carona the chairmanship again. And Carona, Capitol talk has it, might decide to run for Dallas mayor in 2011 instead.

The Trans-Texas Corridor, Perry's 4,000-mile dream of tollways and rail lines cross-hatching the state, has been pronounced dead several times, but is still officially alive in statute. It was scheduled to be scuttled in the TxDOT sunset bill, but the bill died instead.

The Texas Transportation Commission,which runs TxDOT and controls its $8 billion-a-year budget, is still the same five folks, and they're still Perry appointees. The Texas Sunset Review Commission had recommended they be replaced by a single gubernatorial appointee. Some wanted an elected commissioner, others a 15-member elected body.

But no change happened in the end. And the Senate confirmed chairwoman Deirdre Delisi and three colleagues to serve several more years on the board.

Capital Metro will have a new, larger and presumably more competent board, thanks to a law passed by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. However, last-minute changes forced on Watson make it possible that several of the current members of the board could be on the new one as well, assuming they still want the gig and can persuade the appointers to appoint them. Change at the transit agency might be significant.

The Legislature put$182 million in a rail relocation fund meant to help move freight traffic out of metro areas. Potentially, the state might be able to use that money to borrow up to $1 billion for this purpose. The overall need is about $17 billion, so it's not certain Central Texas will get a piece of the pie.

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