Federal highway chief backs ban on texting

Posted Friday, Mar. 01, 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, who visited the President George Bush Turnpike western extension project in Grand Prairie on Friday.

"I know it's controversial, but from a safety standpoint, it's very crucial to our efforts nationwide."

Mendez grew up in El Paso and 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 in that state's Transportation Department before becoming a high-ranking executive in the U.S. Transportation Department in 2009.

In 2011, the Texas Legislature approved a statewide ban on texting while driving, but Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it.

Lawmakers are giving it another try this session. A House committee heard testimony this week from people who lost loved ones in crashes involving distracted driving.

Mendez has been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace his boss -- outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood -- and move into President Barack Obama's Cabinet.

When asked after Friday's event whether he has 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 area to celebrate the completion of the 11-mile western extension of the President George Bush Turnpike. The project was a collaboration among the federal government, the Texas Department of Transportation and the North Texas Tollway Authority.

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

Phil Wilson, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, said the use of a $400 million federal transportation loan, backed by a $20 million infusion of Recovery Act funds, made it possible to build the western extension 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 said he doesn't expect the automatic federal cuts known as sequestration to immediately affect highway programs.

He did say the cuts could eventually affect Superstorm Sandy cleanup projects on the East Coast funded through an emergency relief bill. But that account has enough in it to handle current needs, he said.

Aviation is a different matter. The cuts will cause furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration, 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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