Legislature keeps text and driving, high-speed rail intact, increases transportation funding

The state Legislature approved more highway funding during the 2015 session.
The state Legislature approved more highway funding during the 2015 session. Star-Telegram

Texas’ elected leaders opted not to ban texting while driving in the recently concluded legislative session, making the Lone Star State one of the few places in the nation where it’s still legal to fiddle with an electronic device behind the wheel.

Lawmakers also approved several new potential funding sources for highways and took steps to ensure no more toll roads are built, at least not anytime soon.

And in a choice affecting North Texas, preliminary work on a proposed high-speed rail line from Dallas to Houston will go forward, despite opposition, most notably in rural areas between the two big cities.

In all, the 2015 regular session was a mixed bag of results when it comes to transportation matters. For those whose priority was to increase funding for road projects so the state can expand freeways quickly enough to meet population and job growth, the news was mostly good.

“It turned out to be a fairly successful session for transportation,” said Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes. “It was kind of touch-and-go on some issues, but at the end of the day to me it’s remarkable the turnaround we had in people’s perceptions. People recognized the need for adequate transportation funds. We see what happens when you don’t have it; you end up with toll roads.”

Planners in metropolitan areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth are making adjustments to the state’s new way of thinking, based on what they saw and heard during the legislative session. Mainly, planners got the message that state leaders are willing to dig hard for new sources of toll-free funding to curb the state’s reliance in recent years on issuing debt to pay for roads and often charging motorists tolls to help make the payments.

“We always talked about the need for additional transportation funding,” said Amanda Wilson, who tracks state and federal legislation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “Now we’re swinging the pendulum back to pay-as-you-go for transportation.”

Money for transportation in 2017

One of the biggest pieces of transportation legislation was Senate Joint Resolution 5, which passed the Legislature and goes before voters statewide Nov. 3.

If voters approve, the state Constitution would be amended to allow $2.5 billion in state sales tax revenue that normally goes to the general fund to instead go to transportation projects, beginning in 2017. Also, a portion of sales taxes paid when purchasing a car would go to transportation, beginning in 2020.

The Legislature also approved a measure that ends the diversion of about $1.3 billion in non-transportation expenditures that traditionally have come from gas tax accounts. Much of that money has been used to support the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Also, last year voters agreed to spend a portion of the state’s rainy-day fund — currently about $1.7 billion annually — on transportation. The rainy-day fund is supported by tax revenue from oil and gas production.

All those pots of money will help the state move away from traditional highway funding, which typically comes from gas taxes and vehicle registration fees. Gas-tax funding is likely to play a smaller role in future funding decisions, as motorists drive fewer miles on vehicles that burn less fuel or are powered by alternative energy sources.

State leaders also are stepping up their interest in learning more about how the Texas Department of Transportation spends its money. Gov. Greg Abbott has signed a law requiring the transportation department to develop a ranking system to determine which projects get highway money.

The agency must also develop a plan for eventually getting rid of tolls on the state highway system. That includes providing an analysis of how much it would cost to retire toll obligations and accomplish such a plan.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, the plan wouldn’t affect North Texas Tollway Authority roads, which are separate from the highway system.

The bill also calls for regional planners — in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, that’s the North Central Texas Council of Governments — to include factors such as economic development and environmental impact when ranking long-term transportation projects.

High-speed rail

A proposal to build high-speed rail from Houston to Dallas was saved by several weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, several people who follow state government closely have said.

A private company, Texas Central Railway has pledged to build a 220-mph bullet train system between the state’s two largest cities with no public funding. But opposition to the plan surfaced in the months leading up to the session, and many lawmakers were ready to strip the state transportation department of its right to condemn property or to use state funding for high-speed rail.

Supporters of the plan were able to get that language removed in the final days of the legislative session. As a result, a pair of environmental studies for high-speed rail — one for the Houston-Dallas line, the other for another route serving Dallas, Arlington and Fort Worth — will continue.

“Bullet trains have dodged a bullet,” Fickes quipped.

Texting while driving

A measure that would have made it illegal for drivers to text while behind the wheel died in the final days of the session, despite bipartisan support.

Four years ago, a statewide texting ban was approved by the Legislature, but then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it, saying it was an unnecessary infringement on motorists.

This time, state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, successfully blocked the measure from coming to a final vote. She said she was concerned about the ability of authorities to use the law for unreasonable searches and seizures.

Supporters of the texting ban were willing to add language protecting motorists from searches if they get pulled over for texting, but Burton still wouldn’t end her opposition to the bill, said Jennifer Smith, executive director of Stopdistractions.org, an organization that pushes for tougher laws.

Chris Kyle Memorial Highway

The governor signed into law a provision renaming U.S. 287 in Midlothian Chris Kyle Memorial Highway as a tribute to the Navy sniper who was killed at an Erath County gun range in 2013.

Smog-belching vehicles

The Legislature took action to ramp back up a decade-old program to get smog-belching vehicles off the road.

The program, known as AirCheckTexas, aims to provide financial assistance to owners of automobiles that can’t pass emissions inspections. But it has been underfunded for several years, regional planners said.

With the action taken in the 2015 session, the North Central Texas Council of Governments will be able to provide vouchers to help car owners replace about 6,000 vehicles, up from only 650 vehicles last year, Wilson said. Another 3,000 vehicles can be repaired, up from 2,034 repairs last year.

The program awards vouchers of up to $3,000 to offset the cost of a new car ($3,500 for those who buy a hybrid), or up to $600 to cover an inspection-related repair for residents, who fill out applications based on financial need.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson