DALLAS - A powerful Texas lawmaker who steered milestone transportation legislation through the 2007 session has introduced a bill that would allow counties to raise fuel taxes and fees to bond for rail and road construction.
Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, announced the measure and a related state constitutional amendment Monday with the support of eight lawmakers from both parties and local officials from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Carona, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, helped write and pass SB 792, which imposed a two-year moratorium on private toll roads and gave regional mobility authorities first rights over any turnpikes in their regions.
Carona has also advocated allowing higher fuel taxes to pay for construction of highway projects. The 20-cent per gallon state gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991, with little political support in the state for higher taxes of any kind. Meanwhile, revenue has fallen with more fuel-efficient vehicles as construction costs have soared.
Carona's proposed SB 855 would address not just the highway construction issue, but a plan for a regional rail authority in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. Under the bill, counties in the region could raise taxes and fees for rail or highways with a public vote called by county commissioners.
Voters could decide to raise any or all of six fees or taxes, including the gas tax and driver's license renewal fee. Ballots would list specific projects that the added money would finance and set the expiration date of the increase.
Under the bill, bonds would be backed only by revenue for the projects identified in the ballot. The county would bear no responsibility to back the bonds with its general revenues.
The bill and an enabling constitutional amendment could help 16 counties in North Texas around Dallas and Fort Worth with a plan called Rail North Texas. The plan recently won approval from the Regional Transportation Council made up of the 16 counties, with funding as the most challenging issue.
If approved, the plan would enlarge the potential for rail lines throughout the metro area, not only in the suburban fringe, but in cities like Arlington halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth.
Carona's bill authorizes use of revenue by existing transportation authorities but states that it does not create any new authority.
Along with Dallas-Fort Worth area officials, Austin-area business groups are also seeking a way to pay for local road and rail projects. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, vice chairman of Carona's committee, praised the bill and criticized the state's inability to solve the funding problem.
Texas' funding shortfall has been estimated to be $82 billion, mostly for new highways, expansion and maintenance. Austin, which will inaugurate a new commuter rail line this year, is also again seeking a means of building a light-rail project.
In addition to higher fees for drivers' licenses, parking and registration, the bill would allow regional authorities to impose a $250 new resident impact fee on vehicles not previously registered in the state.