Monday, January 19, 2009

Ben Wear on transportation legislation

Ben Wear has an interesting column in the Statesman today (“Tight budget may affect road bills”), discussing the bills that have been filed or are expected to be filed dealing with transportation for the current session.

The recent low revenue report from Comptroller Susan Combs indicates that legislators will have less money to distribute than they had expected, including for transportation projects.Some bills to watch:

(1) John Carona’s SB 217 which would adjust the gas tax. Transportation analyst Roger Baker says this new money “is small change compared to the billions a year shortfall envisioned by TxDOT’s ‘projected’ needs.”

(2) Given the proposal to move Union Pacific’s freight rail off its current Austin line to a new or expanded line in Eastern Williamson County, we should watch HB 564 and its companion SB 383 which would put $200 million a year into the currently empty Rail Relocation Fund.

(3) Unpopular with folks who have been fighting public-private partnerships is SB 404, Carona’s attempt to extend by six years TxDOT’s authority to use these PPP’s for toll roads. Some analysts speculate that this bill does not mean that Carona has become more of a fan of the PPP toll roads, but that he hates to take this option off the table if sufficient (in his opinion) road money cannot be raised otherwise.

(4) More of a favorite with anti-tollers will be Carona’s SB 384 that takes away TxDOT’s authority to pay for campaigns to promote toll roads. TxDOT’s Keep Texas Moving campaign--ads, signs, literature, lobbying etc.--is the subject of a lawsuit by Terri Hall’s TURF organization. Roger Baker says, “It looks like Carona’s bill to prohibit TxDOT from lobbying for toll roads means that the issue that Terri Hall has been pushing has wide Lege political support as Carona sees it.”

(5) SB 220 from Robert Nichols would take away the Transportation Commission’s authority to convert a free road to a toll road. Given the hostility on the Sunset Advisory Commission to TxDOT’s efforts to change free lanes to toll lanes, this bill may see some success.

(6) As discussed here, last but certainly not least, will be the TxDOT Sunset legislation. This will be what legislators decide to do with the changes, some of them very major, that the Sunset Commission has proposed. Depending on how far the bills get, there may be hearings on some of them, which, Baker points out, “will be interesting, and at which the public can usually testify.”

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