8/14/2009 10:56 AM
IRVING -- Texas politics took centerstage this morning at a prominent gathering of transportation officials and industry leaders this morning.
Sens. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville), Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), Eliott Shapleigh (D-El Paso), and Kirk Watson (D-Austin), along with Reps. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco), Dan Flynn (R-Vann), Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving), Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), and Larry Phillips (R-Sherman), spoke to a room of about 1,000 at the 12th Annual Transportation and Infrastructure Summit. Also speaking was Arkansas Rep. Steve Harrelson, the state's House majority leader.
"With a panel like this we shouldn't have any transportation problems in the state," said Harper-Brown, who represents the summit's host city, Irving.
Speaking first, Deuell noted his support for the Local Options Plan (a plan to give large cities and counties the power to institute voter-approved gas tax and fee increases, locally), as a means to solve urban congestion without burdening rural and exurban areas.
"A lot of the battles [in the legislature regarding transportation] are not Democratic/Republican, or liberal/conservative -- they're urban/rural," Deuell said. "How do you legislate for roads for Delta County as opposed to Dallas County? Of course, Sen. [John] Carona [R-Dallas] tried to get some options for that, which we didn't get through."
In her turn, Shapiro said even though $4 billion was appropriated from 2007 Proposition 12 funds in the last session, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) will soon be broke.
"We may as well realize that we're probably going to run out of money in 2012," Shapiro said, echoing support for the Local Options Plan.
Shapleigh said with one interim session to solve transportation finance issues, it will be critical for Democrats and Republicans to "meet in the middle."
"That's what's unique about Texas," Shapleigh said, advocating bipartisanship.
Shapleigh added that on the national transportation scene Texas is geographically positioned to be an arbitrator of the future of road-building. He likened the Interstate Highway 35 Corridor to "the mighty Mississippi."
Watson said the Local Option plan was ready to go, "but it didn't happen."
"Our job as Legislators should be to carry out what you in this room want us to implement," he said.
House Democratic Caucus leader Dunnam said he opposed the Local Option Plan: "I think we should stop passing the buck to local communities."
Dunnam said he and House Transporation Committee Chairman Pickett discussed a referendum to raise the state motor fuels tax, which hasn't been raised since 1991, "but we ran out of time."
Pickett addressed the motor fuels tax, and said that while 15 cents per gallon goes to the state's Transportation Fund (aka. Fund 6), "the full 15 cents doesn't go to transportation." Pickett noted much of it goes to the Department of Public Safety, which is also essential to transportation but is not related to road-building.
Phillips made a reference to the Sunset process TxDOT is currently under, and urged constructive solutions to reform transportation funding in Texas. "TxDOT is going to be our transportation agency ... let's put the claws back in."
He added that a 200-mph rail line linking Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio was considered in previous years and was estimated to cost $6 billion. He said Texas missed a big opportunity to lessen congestion on I-35 by not reserving funds for the project.
"Think about the difference to our economy if we had that system today," Phillips said.
Harrelson, who called Texas' flat motor fuels tax inefficient, proposed an indexed tax. Prior to that, he put things into perspective for the Texans present on stage with him, noting the $2 billion (out of $4 billion) of Proposition 12 funds recently released for highway construction purposes:
"That's half our general revenue," he said, meeting laughter.
Harper-Brown added that Texas' revenue is in the neighborhood of $17 billion.
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Next up at the summit: U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the as-of-yet unofficial rival of Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the 2010 Republican primary, is expected to speak at a luncheon meeting beginning at 12:30. See the LSR blog around 3 p.m. for a summary of her comments.