Key Issues from the 86th Session

Written by  Bill Hale, TXDOT Chief Engineer

This January, the 86th Texas Legislature convened at the State Capitol. As in all legislative sessions, transportation is an issue for the lawmaking body of the state. Issues regarding tolling, the Texas Emission Reduction Program, the energy sector and the possible extension of Proposition 1 have all been identified as topics this session, and TxDOT is working hard to ensure responsiveness to the state Legislature that regulates it. Let me share a few brief points about each of those.

Toll Roads

Some statutory changes that occurred in our last Sunset bill – SB 312 – dealt with tolling, including the administrative fees that are attached to toll collection and a new opt-in feature for toll customers to receive email invoices.

Those changes have already been incorporated into our rules as they apply only to TxDOT-operated toll roads. This session there have been a handful of toll roads bills filed and heard by the Legislature dealing with tolling charges, billing practices and toll removal.

Texas Emissions Reduction Program

The Legislature has also been considering transfers made to the Texas Emissions Reduction Program and that program’s fund balance. That’s important to TxDOT because a portion of that account’s funding comes from the State Highway Fund. Since the transfers began in 2009, they’ve added up to more than $862 million from the State Highway Fund. The current state statute that authorizes the transfer expires at the end of fiscal year 2019. There is legislation being consider that would extend the expiration by two years or to continue until air quality attainment is obtained.

Energy Sector

Those are projects in cities and communities large and small. And while it’s our larger cities – Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio – that typically draw the headlines because of their transportation challenges, there are other regions that also need attention. West Texas, home to the Permian and Delaware Basins, and the Eagle Ford Shale near South Texas, are feeling the effects of the state’s oil and gas energy sector in ways that they couldn’t have imagined. Drivers in those areas must now share their mostly two-lane road system with heavy trucks and many more vehicles that support the industry. Not only is that bringing extensive damage to the roads, but an increased number of crashes and congestion on these rural corridors and at intersections. While only 2% of Texans live in the Permian Basin region, 11% of all traffic fatalities in the state took place there in 2017.

TxDOT is also addressing that area’s growing transportation problems with the help of federal funding. Last year, TxDOT was awarded $50 million in federal grants to pay for critical investments to address safety and connectivity in the region. Specifically, $25 million each is going toward two projects to build overpasses at SHs 302 and 115 in Kermit and at SHs 158 and 137 in Garden City. The funding will also help improve SH 137 west of Garden City.

It’s important to note that in our 2019 Unified Transportation Program, TxDOT allocated about $2 billion to fix roads and improve safety in the energy sector, and TxDOT districts will also use funding from other sources to support those projects.

Non-traditional funding for TxDOT

The transportation improvements that TxDOT has accomplished across the state is being funded in part by Propositions 1 and 7. As beneficial as this voter-approved funding is, the funds have a limited shelf life, as Proposition 1 will sunset at the end of 2024, and provisions of Proposition 7 will end in 2029 and 2032. Longer-term, we can’t plan for projects outside our current UTP window of 2028 without legislative extension of those funding sources. There is legislation moving through the process this session to extend the Proposition 1 sunset date 10 more years.

While no one can predict what will happen when the final gavel sounds in May, we’re confident that our state leaders will make the best decisions for Texas and the transportation system we all rely on.

MediaEDGE Logo sml