Federal funds to help Texas beef up drunken-driving enforcement

Drivers who imbibe be warned: Texas plans to step up enforcement of drunken-driving laws -- even though the effort won't include sobriety checkpoints like those used in many other states.

On Thursday, the Texas Transportation Commission approved a $96 million safety plan that includes more than $40 million for preventing alcohol- and drug-influenced driving, including $18 million in new enforcement funds.

Alcohol-related fatalities are down statewide from a year ago, but Texas still has the seventh-highest alcohol-related-fatality rate in the U.S. Of 3,087 road fatalities statewide in 2009, 977 were alcohol-related, said Carol Rawson, Texas Department of Transportation traffic operations director.

"We're going to see more enforcement out there. The Texas Department of Public Safety is going to help us," she told commissioners.

Because Texas is among the 10 states with the most alcohol-related fatalities (per vehicle miles traveled) the state qualifies for an extra $9 million in federal funds for drunken-driving eradication. Federal rules require half to be spent on "high-visibility enforcement," Rawson said.

The funding also requires a $9 million state and local match, which Texas will provide, for a total of $18 million in extra enforcement on the streets, she said.

The enforcement money will be used for programs such as DWI task force patrols, but not for checkpoints, which aren't legal in Texas.

Anti-drunken-driving efforts are perennial hot topics in the Legislature and are likely to be discussed at length during the session that begins in January.

Many officials in the state, including police and prosecutors, say the tools used to combat drunken driving over the past 20 years aren't working.

Lawmakers are talking about making major changes, including more treatment for first-time offenders and an end to a program that assessed fines so steep that thousands of motorists ignored the penalties and continued to drive without a valid license or insurance.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups also plan to push for sobriety checkpoints and mandatory interlocking devices, which prevent offenders with alcohol on their breath from starting their cars.

Alcohol-related fatalities dropped about 8 percent last year, state crash statistics show: 977 in 2009, compared with 1,066 in 2008.

Other action

The commission also approved more than $76 million in transportation enhancement projects statewide, including $8.2 million for trail and sidewalk projects in Tarrant County.

Federal law dictates that 10 percent of highway formula funds be set aside for so-called enhancements -- often trails, landscaping or even artwork -- that complement the highway system. Among the enhancement projects approved Thursday:

Fort Worth: $4.4 million for neighborhood connections for pedestrians and bicycles. This will expand the city's trail system to 50 miles over the next three to five years, up from 42 miles, said Adelaide Leavens, executive director of the nonprofit Streams and Valleys Inc.

"I just cannot stress how incredible it is for us to receive this much money," said Leavens, whose group will help provide a 20 percent local match with donations and in-kind contributions of labor and equipment.

Southlake: $1.7 million for Farm Road 1709 sidewalks.

Arlington: $1.2 million for a Bowman Branch Linear Park trail.

Grapevine: $935,000 for a Grapevine Links Trail to hotels and shops.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

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