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Department of Public Safety

We’re not going to solve our transportation issues without new revenue

The choice isn’t whether or not to pay, it’s how do you want to pay.

Sen. Kevin Eltife

Despite broad agreement that repairing and improving Texas highways will cost more money than it has in the past, legislators split Monday on whether now is the time to impose new transportation taxes or fees.

House members attending the annual Texas Transportation Forum said lawmakers were unlikely to support increasing transportation revenues. Senators, however, said this seemed unavoidable.

“There are times when taxes are the conservative thing to do,” said Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.

Across Texas, transportation officials estimate they need an additional $3 billion for new construction and $1 billion for maintenance. With state and federal coffers tight, conference attendees said, new revenue sources are the best solution – but a tough sell to lawmakers.

“It should be looked at as an investment, not an expense,” said William Thompson Jr., former New York City controller, a speaker at the transportation forum.

The recent template for getting projects moving in Texas has been development agreements between the Texas Department of Transportation and regional officials, and $13 billion in borrowing. State transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said the three most recent Houston-area projects to proceed – construction of part of the Grand Parkway and improvements to U.S. 290 and Texas 288 – advanced through partnerships with the Harris County Toll Road Authority and other adjacent counties.

But now “the credit card is maxed” and new taxes are likely, Eltife said.

“I was fine before I came to this office, and if they kick me out of office I’ll be fine,” Eltife said to applause from the crowd.

I’d need to look up the amount, but all that borrowing we’ve done to finance road projects in Texas is going to cost us a lot of money in interest payments. That’s another thing that will need to be paid for somehow. The solutions being discussed now include not diverting any more funds from the gas tax revenue, which would add about $300 million to the road funds but which would leave a hole of the same size in general revenue – the diversion is mostly to pay for the Department of Public Safety, so ending that diversion is no sure thing – and doubling the vehicle registration fee, which has a reasonable shot at passing and would raise about $1 billion. Personally, I think Sen. Eltife is right, and the sooner we accept that the sooner we can start actually making headway on this. It may be the case that driverless cars will ultimately reduce the amount of road space we need, but who knows when that might happen, and until then there are some crying needs that have to be addressed. Better and in the long run cheaper to accept reality now. The DMN, the Trib, Dallas Transportation, and EoW have more.

Car inspections

Good question: What exactly are car inspections useful for?

Texas is one of 19 states left that require a periodic [vehicle] safety review – down from a peak of 31 states in the 1970s. The District of Columbia recently disbanded its inspection program because of high costs and a lack of evidence that the inspections saved lives.

There is no serious discussion about eliminating Texas’ program, which includes an emissions test in Dallas and some other locations.

But state officials and insurers acknowledge that more could be done to determine what the inspections are accomplishing.

“The state needs to start collecting data and establish a baseline,” said Jerry Johns, president of Southwest Insurance Information Service, an Austin-based industry trade group. “If it is not working, then abolish it. But we don’t think that would be the case.”

It’s a good story about something I doubt I’d ever thought about. One thing the inspections are good for is raising a bit of cash for the state. On balance, I have no problem with the inspection program, whatever it may actually accomplish, but I’d be happier if we got more serious about emissions testing. Maybe some day.

Interim DPS director retiring

What the hell is going on at the Department of Public Safety?

he director of the Texas Department of Public Safety is resigning amid allegations that he touched women at the agency in an unprofessional way, “demonstratively” blew kisses to one and called a veteran employee “his girl.”

Col. Stanley Clark’s resignation is effective May 31, but he will no longer be performing any duties at DPS, according to a spokeswoman.

Clark, 60, has led the agency since becoming interim director in September. He succeeded Col. Tommy Davis, who retired in the wake of a fire that severely damaged the Governor’s Mansion on DPS’ watch.

“This is an elite law enforcement agency. We expect all our employees to demonstrate the highest degree of professionalism,” Allan Polunsky, chairman of the Texas Public Safety Commission, said in a statement. “The director must set the example for all employees in their workplace communications.

“Col. Clark has acknowledged his failure to adhere to those high standards and has chosen to retire at the end of this month,” Polunsky said. “We are disappointed by this matter, and we are committed to moving on in our search for a director.”

The story has more details; it’s all very creepy. This guy was there on a temporary basis after the last guy was apparently forced out over DPS’ failures to prevent or apprehend the person responsible for the fire that damaged the Governor’s mansion in 2007. All I can say is I hope whoever they find via that national search knows what he or she is getting into. Grits has more.