Federal highway chief backs ban on texting

Posted Saturday, Mar. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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GRAND PRAIRIE - The nation's highway chief is backing an effort to ban texting while driving in Texas.

"As somebody who grew up in Texas, I hope someday Texas will pass a law to restrict texting while driving," said Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez, a native Texan, who on Friday visited the President George Bush Turnpike western extension project in Grand Prairie. "I know it's controversial, but from a safety standpoint, it's very crucial to our efforts nationwide."

Mendez grew up in El Paso, where he attended Jefferson High School and the University of Texas at El Paso. He went to graduate school at Arizona State University, and began a career at that state's transportation department before becoming one of the high-ranking executives at the U.S. Transportation Department in 2009.

The Texas Legislature in 2011 approved a statewide ban on texting while driving, but Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it. But lawmakers are giving it another try during the current session. A House committee this week heard testimony from many people who had lost loved ones to a crash involving distracted driving.

Mendez has been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace his boss -- outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood -- and move into President Obama's cabinet. When asked after Friday's event if he had been asked to serve as transportation secretary, Mendez said, "There are a lot of these rumors out there about who's next. Let's just let the president make his decision."

Mendez was in the Dallas Fort Worth area to celebrate the completion of the 11-mile western extension of the President George Bush Turnpike. The project was collaboration between the federal government, Texas Department of Transportation and North Texas Tollway Authority.

The western extension, formerly known as Texas 161 toll road, opened up a crucial new north-south connection for Metroplex motorists, providing sorely needed relief for traffic on Texas 360 in Arlington.

Phil Wilson, Texas Department of Transportation executive director, said the use of a $400 million federal transportation loan, backed by a $20 million infusion in Recovery Act funds, made it possible to build the Bush Turnpike western extension project at a time when traditional funds weren't adequate.

"It really is a model for the rest of the United States," Wilson told about 100 people who gathered to celebrate the project completion. Wilson singled out the efforts of Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

"No one else has done it like Michael and Clay," he said.

Mendez also said he didn't expect the automatic federal sequestration funding cuts to immediately affect highway programs. Most federal road work is paid for through the highway trust fund, and not the general fund.

He did say the cuts could eventually affect Hurricane Sandy cleanup projects on the East Coast funded through an emergency relief bill. But for now, that account had enough of a balance to handle current needs.

But aviation is a different matter. The cuts will cause furloughs at the FAA, which could slow air travel, Mendez said.

"It's going to affect the traveling public," he said.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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