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Legislature will tackle transportation issues

Sobriety checkpoints, red-light cameras, a ban on texting while driving and other measures aimed at Texans' bad driving habits will again be in the spotlight when the Legislature convenes next month.

And as in previous legislative sessions, paying for better roads, passenger rail and other infrastructure will be a prickly issue.

For example, lawmakers will be asked whether to allow the Texas Department of Transportation to make agreements with developers -- to build road and perhaps rail projects the state otherwise can't afford -- rather than raise gasoline taxes or other fees.

"There's not going to be any additional tax revenue, whatsoever," Russell Laughlin, a Hillwood Properties executive, recently told members of the 35W Coalition, a group of business and political leaders seeking funding for Interstate 35W north of downtown Fort Worth.

The state is grappling with a potential $25 billion budget shortfall, and lawmakers may also be too involved in time-consuming issues such as redistricting, immigration reform and voter ID to dedicate much of the regular session to transportation. But issues such as driver behavior and mobility will occupy at least some of their time.

Transportation Department

Lawmakers will also be keenly interested in the reorganization of the Texas Department of Transportation, which has lost public confidence in recent years over controversies such as the ill-fated Trans-Texas Corridor project. The Sunset Review Commission is recommending that the department should exist for four more years, to buy more time to see whether measures taken since 2008 to make it more efficient and trustworthy are working.

Also, a panel of troubleshooters asked by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker to study the department's management problems in depth is expected to issue its recommendations next week -- giving lawmakers just enough time to put some of the ideas into legislation.

Meanwhile, transportation advocates will be emphasizing the need for new funding sources.

The cost of inaction could be steep. Without new revenue for roads and a crumbling state infrastructure that needs maintenance, Texas could run out of money for new projects by September, members of a Senate transportation committee say. That could lead to a loss of jobs or to an expensive road repair bill for future generations.

"The Legislature is going to have to make the policy decision based on its own resources, but it's our job to make sure the Legislature is completely informed as to what the issues are," said Bill Meadows of Fort Worth, a member of the Texas Transportation Commission.

Details

Here's what to expect this legislative session.

Drunken driving: Advocates of tougher drunken-driving laws will again push for sobriety checkpoints, which are used in 38 other states. Mothers Against Drunk Driving also wants to mandate interlock devices, which require a motorist to blow into a tube before the car's ignition will work, for first-time offenders. Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has filed a bill that would permanently revoke an offender's driver's license after two DWI convictions.

Also, Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, is proposing that first-time drunken drivers be offered deferred adjudication if they complete supervision and treatment, which would allow prosecutors to focus on repeat offenders.

Such deferred adjudication was abolished in the 1980s after DWI opponents argued that repeat offenders were abusing it. But Smith's bill has support from groups such as MADD, as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys. The bill would address a logjam of first-time DWI cases in the judicial system -- advocates say first-time offenders would be more likely to plead guilty and seek help -- and provide stiffer penalties for second-time offenders.

Red-light cameras: Reducing government's role in people's lives is a popular sentiment, so this could be the session when the state bans cities from installing any more electronic eyes at intersections. But the main red-light camera opponent in previous sessions, Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, didn't seek re-election this year, so it's not clear whether someone else will champion the effort.

Texting: Using mobile devices while driving is already against the law in school zones, although not all cities enforce it, and a bill has been filed to extend that ban to all driving situations beginning next year.

Developers: The state Transportation Department entered into a comprehensive agreement with private developers to rebuild Northeast Loop 820, Airport Freeway and Interstate 35W. The state has since banned such arrangements. But lawmakers say this is a low-risk way to bring new dollars to large projects in metro areas -- and there may be support for using it with a handful of other specific projects, including the Interstate 35E expansion near Lake Lewisville.

"TxDOT will not have the blanket right it had in the past, but there's a good possibility of getting a short list of projects implemented in the next couple of years," said Vic Suhm, executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition.

Property taxes: Transportation reinvestment zones are allowed in limited situations for road work, but not rail projects. Cities and counties can dedicate future property taxes in a specific area to road improvements within such a zone.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, has introduced a bill that would allow cities and counties to create a transportation reinvestment zone "for any transportation project," including rail. Such a measure could open the door to new funding sources for passenger rail projects such as the proposed commuter rail line from southwest Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

Road bonds: Voters agreed in 2007 to pay for up to $5 billion worth of road work through the sale of bonds, but the state has authorized only $3 billion. Look for the Legislature to push the rest forward.

Diversions: An estimated $650 million a year from the state gasoline tax and other highway-related fees is spent on state services other than transportation. Lawmakers who are really paying attention to the transportation funding issue want to end diversion -- but it would create funding problems in other areas of state government, including public safety and schools, and may be too complicated for this session.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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