Author Archives: Brandon Formby

Abbott, Patrick push back on TxDOT’s plans for financing new toll projects

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick before hitting the gavel to begin a Senate session Aug. 15, 2017, the day before the end of a first called special session of the 85th Legislature. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told state transportation leaders Thursday they should abandon plans for using an accounting maneuver to get around a constitutional prohibition on some toll projects. Patrick said the idea has left lawmakers “very unhappy” with Texas Transportation Commission members, who appear “to be going in a direction that opposes the will” of legislators and Texas drivers.

Comments from Abbott and Patrick came hours after The Texas Tribune reported that the commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, is considering funding highway rebuilds and expansions in corridors that would also feature managed toll lanes.

Some of those projects could be partially funded with billions of tax dollars that Texas voters overwhelmingly agreed to spend on highway projects. Ballot language that steered those funds to TxDOT also said the money would not be used on toll roads or toll lanes.

TxDOT, though, is considering accounting maneuvers that would still allow toll lanes to be built. Their idea: Voter-approved funds would be spent on the non-tolled main lanes, while the new toll lanes next to them would be funded through gas tax revenue or federal loans that don’t come with restrictions on using them for toll projects.

“It is surprising and disappointing to learn that TxDOT created a plan to add managed toll lanes to virtually every major roadway under consideration,” Patrick told transportation officials in a letter Thursday.

Bruce Bugg, who chairs the transportation commission, told the Tribune Wednesday that Abbott’s office is aware of the idea to use accounting maneuvers to help fund rebuilds that would be next to toll lanes. He also said that he believes the practice would not violate the state constitution.

Abbott appoints the five commissioners that oversee TxDOT and promised Texans that highway capacity would be added throughout the state without new toll lanes financing construction.

“The governor and his staff have been in constant communication with members of the Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT staff to express their desire to not include new toll roads” in long-term state transportation plans, Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said Thursday.

TxDOT officials could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.

Meanwhile, State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, has asked the state attorney general’s office to weigh in on whether the accounting idea is legal.

Lawmakers in recent years have fiercely opposed toll roads and managed toll lanes as their constituents have complained about the increasing number of such projects, especially in North Texas. Collin County lawmakers successfully got regional planners there to drop plans for turning carpool lanes on Central Expressway into managed toll lanes. And the Texas House earlier this year killed a major transportation funding bill, largely because projects within it would have included toll lanes.

TxDOT officials’ idea comes as they prepare to update the state’s long-term transportation plan next year. Many of the projects being proposed for the plan include managed toll lanes, which run alongside non-tolled main lanes and generally charge drivers rates that vary based on usage. The tolls increase as more people use the managed lanes. Those increases are meant to prevent the lanes from becoming more congested.

Transportation officials say funding the managed lanes with federal loans backed by toll revenues, while adding non-tolled main lanes with tax dollars, would help the agency build more capacity with limited funds. In meetings, TxDOT documents and interviews, state officials have also indicated that regional planners from the state’s major urban areas are pushing the idea of using managed toll lanes.

Once toll revenues pay off construction costs, the excess funds that drivers would still pay could then be used to maintain existing roads or pay for expanding or building roads in the same areas.

“These local communities are trying to identify solutions to manage and mitigate their traffic congestion throughout their respective areas,” TxDOT project planning and development director Lauren Garduño told transportation commissioners last month.

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Coastal officials say feds failing Harvey victims on short-term housing

Fulton Mayor Jimmy Kendrick told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Disaster Impact and Recovery that he's had suicidal thoughts as he tries to lead his city through its recovery from Hurricane Harvey. 

Coastal Texas officials whose counties and cities bore the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s deadly blow this summer unleashed a barrage of complaints about recovery efforts at a Texas House subcommittee hearing in Corpus Christi on Wednesday.

The mayors and county leaders voiced frustration — and one shared a vivid account of suicidal thoughts — stemming from what they described as a woefully inadequate federal response to the storm’s vast destruction.

With winter coming, they told stories about residents still living in tents and hotels more than two months after the storm battered southeast Texas. Their criticisms were largely focused on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of initial recovery efforts.

“They rank high on promises and way low on promises kept,” Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan said.

FEMA officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The local leaders also told the Texas House Appropriations Subcommittee on Disaster Impact and Recovery that the state has not funded all communities’ relief efforts in an equitable way, an apparent reference to $50 million Gov. Greg Abbott gave Houston after a public dispute with Mayor Sylvester Turner.

And although the storm impacted communities across a wide swath of the state differently, they said one immediate need stands above the rest: securing more temporary housing for residents who will spend years recovering.

“You can’t rebuild a community unless your citizens have a place to live, and our citizens don’t have a place to live,” said Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal.

Their comments come on the heels of housing advocates and experts expressing worries that state leaders’ push for up to $121 billion in federal recovery money is focused more on public works projects like flood control than on individual assistance like rebuilding Texans’ flooded houses.

More than 886,000 Texas households applied for some sort of disaster aid after Harvey swept through a large swath of the state. As of last week, more than 51,000 southeast Texans were still displaced and living in hotel rooms, according to FEMA data, and at least 26,000 are handling temporary housing on their own, which could include living in damaged homes, staying with loved ones or paying for short-term housing needs out of pocket.

The state says more than 7,000 families still need government-subsidized temporary housing such as apartments or trailers while their homes are rebuilt. Mayors and county officials on Wednesday issued several criticisms about the bureaucracy residents must contend with as they seek immediate disaster aid.

“These people have gone through four steps and still don’t get any help,” said San Patricio County Judge Terry Simpson.

He also said that residents will begin the process with one FEMA worker only to have another one give them different instructions or explanations about aid qualifications or requirements weeks later.

“The system is broken,” he said. “The system doesn’t work the way it was planned to work.”

Bujan said more than 100 residents in Port Aransas lost their homes and only five families have been approved for temporary trailers.

“Those five trailers have never arrived,” he said. “They’re not there. I don’t know where they’re at.”

The hearing also featured state and local education officials detailing the high cost of displaced students and damaged school buildings. City, county and school officials also told lawmakers they expect to also face extreme budget woes once the value of damaged properties are reappraised and tax revenues plummet.

Fulton Mayor Jimmy Kendrick drew a spattering of applause after he testified that the stress from trying to recover with inadequate federal response keeps him from sleeping some nights. He said frustrated residents have focused some of their ire on him, lobbing unfounded accusations about him on social media.

“There’s been times I’ve sat there and thought about putting a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger,” he said.

A two-pronged approach

Abbott split long-term recovery into two initiatives, each overseen by a different state entity vying for limited federal funds. A commission headed by Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp is focusing on securing money for infrastructure projects. The Texas General Land Office is spearheading efforts to find temporary housing for displaced Texans and also plans to oversee billions in federal dollars that will help them rebuild or renovate their homes.

But the land office is also seeking money for infrastructure projects — and doesn’t want the federal Housing and Urban Development department to limit how much long-term disaster relief money can be spent on public works projects versus housing recovery.

“The key to this is not thinking of it simply as rebuilding, but rebuilding to prevent damage from future storms and thus make Texas more resilient,” said Brittany Eck, a land office spokeswoman.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush said at Wednesday’s hearing that helping Texans is of primary importance. But he also said recovery money should be used to protect economic development and the private energy industry from the next disaster.

“We can’t lose sight of long-term resiliency,” he said.

Abbott’s two-pronged approach is similar to the state’s playbook after Hurricanes Ike and Dolly. But housing advocates complained about how the state handled those funds, and HUD eventually forced Texas to rework its plans for the money and required more spending on housing for lower income residents.

Nearly 10 years after those storms, more than $500 million in disaster relief funds remains unspent. About $297 million of that is earmarked for housing.

“No positive headlines”

Local officials on Wednesday also complained that FEMA says privacy laws prevent the agency from sharing why individual residents are declined assistance or asked to provide more information.

“We can’t exactly share the criteria by which applicants are being declined,” Bush said.

As his agency begins steering those approved for short-term assistance toward five different federal programs, Bush said he has lobbied for a moratorium on home foreclosures in impacted counties.

He also suggested that his office’s hands are tied on some matters by an “extensive, voluminous” agreement with FEMA to oversee short-term housing programs.

“People are going to be frustrated,” Bush said. “There are going to be no positive headlines as it relates to temporary housing.”

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Bill limiting city, county spending fuels war over local control

State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, visits with a House member on the Senate floor May 17, 2017. House members have been visiting the upper chamber to negotiate bills in the final days of the 85th Legislature. 

When state senators revive legislation on Saturday that could require voter approval of city and county property tax rates, lawmakers will also consider something that didn’t come up during this year’s regular legislative session: limiting how much money local governments spend.

Sen. Craig Estes‘ Senate Bill 18 would require cities and counties to get voter approval if they plan to spend a certain amount more than they did in a previous year. His bill ties such an election trigger to inflation and statewide population growth.

“You ask people about that and they generally think that’s a good thing,” the Wichita Falls Republican said Friday.

But local government officials and advocates for municipal government say the measure will hinder their ability to afford services that residents expect. They also say it will make it hard to keep up with population growth — especially in booming suburbs growing much faster than the state as a whole.

“We’re planning our budgets multiple years in the future because we’ve got so many capital projects that we can’t just look at budgets from year to year,” said Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney, whose North Texas city grew almost four times as fast as Texas did from 2015 to 2016.

Estes’ bill, plus others aimed at giving voters more frequent say over their property tax rates, are on the docket for Senate committees this weekend. They fall in line with several items on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session call that seek to limit powers cities and counties have long exercised. Other bills being considered Saturday and Sunday would change how and when municipalities regulate land use and annex land outside their borders.

State leaders say they are trying to both respond to Texans’ complaints about rising property tax bills and protect landowners’ rights from local regulations. But local elected officials say lawmakers and top state leaders are unfairly portraying cities and counties as irresponsible stewards of taxpayer money to score political points with voters ahead of next year’s primaries.

Such tensions highlight a growing divide over how much say city and county officials should have over local matters. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the proposed spending cap is another example of lawmakers trying to control officials who are elected to represent Texans at the local level.

“It certainly flies in the face of the very important democratic principle that we’ve adhered to for centuries in self governance,” Nirenberg said.

On Monday, Nirenberg and the mayors of the state’s other 17 largest cities sent a letter to Abbott asking for a meeting to discuss the bevy of special session bills they said would hinder their ability to “serve as the economic engines of Texas.”

Abbott began reaching out to the mayors Thursday to set up a meeting, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. The chief of staff for El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said his office had been contacted in response to the letter. Staffers for other Texas mayors said late Thursday they had not been contacted yet.

“As far as we know, the governor’s office started calling those mayors today and saying, ‘Yeah, come on by next week,'” Sandlin said Thursday. “That’s all we know.”

While Republicans hold all statewide offices and both chambers of the Legislature — and many big city mayors and council members are Democrats — state GOP leaders looking to limit local officials’ powers are getting pushback from both political parties.

Cheney, the Frisco mayor, is a Republican. So, too, is Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who was among the mayors asking Abbott for a meeting. She said Estes’ spending cap bill isn’t necessary and could create unintended financial consequences that the state will simply leave the cities to address.

She said cities have de facto spending caps already, “in the form of your citizens who talk to you in terms of the services, what they want, what they don’t want and what they’re willing to pay for,” Price said.

Sandlin, with the Municipal League, said voters already have a way to control local officials’ spending: city council and county commissioners court elections.

“It’s got to be one of the most poorly conceived bills from a policy standpoint that I’ve ever seen,” Sandlin said.

Estes couldn’t point to any examples of cities or counties dramatically increasing their spending in recent years. He said his office is currently collecting data from local governments on it. And he said he’s open to tweaking provisions in his bill as it moves through the Legislature.

But he shrugged off the notion that the state shouldn’t be telling local governments what to do. He said counties are extensions of state government, and that cities “reside in the state.”

“I don’t think that’s really an issue, that we don’t have any jurisdiction in what they’re doing,” he said. “We do.”

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report. 

Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

 

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New law clears the way for driverless cars on Texas roads

Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill Thursday that signals to Google, Uber and carmakers that they are welcome to test self-driving cars on the state’s roads and highways without a driver behind the wheel. 

There was nothing in existing law that banned autonomous vehicles from Texas roads. After all, Google has been testing them since 2015 in Austin, and Arlington is rolling them out. And several Texas sites were chosen by the U.S. Department of Transportation to test the technology in closed-course settings. Yet because state statutes didn’t address the emerging technology at all, some manufacturers have told state officials they were wary about testing vehicles alongside street and highway traffic in Texas.

“The lack of laws credited a need for clarity,” state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said at an April hearing on his bill.

Senate Bill 2205 requires driverless vehicles used on highways be capable of complying with all traffic laws, be equipped with video recording devices and be insured just like other cars. It also makes the manufacturer responsible for any broken traffic laws or car wrecks, as long as the automated driving system hasn’t been modified by anyone else.

It’s unclear if the new law will lead to Texans regularly commuting next to cars that don’t have an operator — or anyone — inside. 

Texas is now among 18 states that have passed bills related to autonomous vehicles. It’s among three states that have done so in recent months. Many manufacturers, including General Motors and Toyota, backed the bill.

“It sends all the right signals to GM or anybody else that’s embracing the technology,” said Harry Lightsey, GM’s executive director of emerging technologies policy.

Does that mean the auto manufacturer will soon be operating empty vehicles on Texas highways?

“We have not publicly said what our plans may or not be for the future,” Lightsey said.

The company is testing autonomous cars in three other states. But there’s always an operator in their vehicles in case a human needs to take over driving. Lightsey said it could be a while before the company feels comfortable operating a vehicle in traffic without anyone inside.

“We’re not going to do it until we have the data that fully convinces us we can do that safely,” he said.

AAA Texas would have preferred that the new state law required a human operator be in the vehicle. The group also wanted minimum insurance coverage to be $1 million, instead of the lower coverage levels all other cars on Texas roads are required to maintain. But the bill made it through both chambers without the organized opposition a similar attempt faced two years ago.

Lawmakers and experts said the technology has the potential to dramatically reduce road fatalities and provide a new transportation option to disabled Texans.

“The technology has tremendous potential to make everybody safer on the road,” Lightsey said. “It also has tremendous potential to enhance quality of life for a lot of people.”

Disclosure: Google, Uber, General Motors, Toyota and AAA Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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