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Senate passes TxDOT sunset bill, red light cameras not dead yet

The Senate approved its version of HB300, the TxDOT sunset bill, and as expected it has some major differences from the House version.

Plans to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects in North Texas progressed Monday night as the Senate approved a massive transportation bill that gives counties authority to ask voters to endorse higher gas taxes or other fees.

The bill, approved 22-9, would also end the state’s authority to create privately operated and financed toll roads, though that provision could easily be changed, or even eliminated, before the bill becomes law.

A version of the bill passed this month by the House does not include the tax proposal, a fact that could spell trouble for the entire bill. The House bill would impose far more changes on the Texas Department of Transportation. The chambers will have to negotiate a compromise on the bill.

An amendment to kill red-light cameras in Texas also passed 16-15, but was later withdrawn after two senators changed their minds. The House had already voted to kill the cameras, which several Dallas-area cities use.

Matt Stiles blogged Monday morning about a possible option to let those caught by red light cameras take a defensive driving course to get out of paying the fine. It’s unclear to me if this provision is in the Senate version of the bill. The close vote on the cameras, and the fact that a couple of Senators changed their minds, suggests the possibility that the ban could be added back into the conference committee version of the bill. For now, though, they live.

The local tax provision would let counties in Texas’ five largest metropolitan areas call tax elections as soon as 2010. Voters would be asked to approve a range of new fees and taxes, possibly including a 10-cent per gallon fuel tax increase.

Peggy Fikac notes that this also includes the possibility of up to a $60 increase for vehicle registration fees and up to a $24 increase for driver licenses’ fees that could be used for transportation projects. All would have to be approved by voters.

Dallas-area planners have said their first priority for the new funds, which could total $500 million or more per year, will be to expand suburban rail lines, though legal hurdles to using all of the new funds for that purpose must still be cleared.

Sure would be nice to have some funds like that available for commuter rail here, wouldn’t it? I have a hard time seeing any ballot-proposition tax or fee increases to fund that getting passed, unfortunately.

In the Senate version of the bill, the Texas Department of Transportation would retain its current governance structure – comprising five commissioners appointed by the governor – and its authority to have the biggest say over which roads will be built and when.

The Senate bill would reduce transportation commissioners’ terms from six years to two, however.

So no elections for TxDOT commissioners. I know there were logistical issues with that, and that rural counties likely would have gotten the short end of the stick, but I still think it was a worthwhile idea to explore. Maybe some other time. For now, the next step is the real sausage-making, also known as the conference committee. They’ll need to hurry, and Lord knows nothing can go wrong when that happens. Keep an eye on this one. Postcards has more.

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