Friday, March 20, 2009

What Faith Chatham wants to see "tweeked" in Carona's Rail Financing Bill

By Faith Chatham - DFWRCC - March 20, 2009
Financing passenger rail in Texas is one of the few true cures for gridlock and improvements to air quality in the DFW region. Congestion pricing and market valuation on tolled HOV lanes and toll roads will not cure gridlock or improve air quality. Getting cars off the roadways is a much better plan.

Arlington, Texas, in the center of the DFW Region, is the largest city in the USA without mass transit. Over 60% of the residents of Arlington work outside of the city and it is estimated that over 70% of those who work in Arlington reside outside of the city. Except fora pilot program for commuter bus service from two park and ride lots in Arlington to Fort Worth, every worker is dependent upon private automobiles for commuting to and from work. A similar scenario exists in neighboring Grand Prairie.

The Dorothy Spur runs through the downtown business/entertainment districts of both cities. That rail line is currently devoted entirely to freight transportation and a few Amtrak trains a day, none of which actually stop in either Arlington or Grand Prairie. Some freight is switched to feeder tracks in the Great Southwest Business District, but passengers are not allowed to board or exit any passenger train which passes through either of these cities.

Senator Carona authored SB942, a local option transportation bill, in an attempt to generate a source of funding for passenger rail which voters in each county can approve or reject to address regional rail needs throughout the state. SB942 needs a serious overhaul before it is voted on by the Senate or Texas Legislature. Two other rail financing bills, one by Sen. Truitt and one by Sen. Villarreal have been filed. Terry Hall of T.U.R.F. favors Senator Villarreal's version.

I am personally very interested in seeing a tighter, more precisely worded rail financing bill passed by both houses of the Texas Legislature. Current vague wording in all versions before the Senate present pittfalls.

Here is Faith Chatham's Wish List or list of "tweeks" for Rail Infrastructure Financing Bills:
1. Caps on potential taxes or fee increases should be lower. Currently many are so high that voters will reject all options because they vehemently object to the potential high cost of one or more potential options. The cap on proposed increase in vehicle registration or vehicle sales tax fees should be clearly stated and LOW ENOUGH THAT IT WILL BE ACCEPTABLE TO VOTERS!
2. Proposed tax increases should be tied to specific rail projects.
3. The bill(s) should clearly state that income generated from the tax or fee increase MUST be applied to the SPECIFIC PROJECT approved by the voters.
4. Instead of voter approval being optional, the language of the bill(s) must stipulate that the VOTERS MUST APPROVE THE TAX INCREASE FOR THE SPECIFIED PROJECT before public funds are spent on planning, environmental or construction of a proposed rail line or facility.
5. All bills must eliminate the requirement that citizens gather 10% of the signatures in that region of voters in the last governor's election before citizens are given opportunity to vote on the rail option. Instead, as stated in number 3, the language MUST STIPULATE CLEARLY that proposed increase in existing fees or taxes or imposition of new fees or taxes for proposed rail infrastructure projects be presented to the voters for approval before public funds are spent on proposed rail projects.
6. Passenger rail projects funded under these bills may not impose "congestion pricing" or "market pricing" on passenger rail tickets.
7. All fees or fee (tax) increase imposed on passenger vehicles under this act must also apply to commercial vehicles. Current bills exclude commercial vehicles from most proposed new taxes (fees).
8. When new fees (taxes) are presented to the voter, the bill should stipulate that there must be a sunset for the taxes stipulated in the wording on the ballot, clearly stating what specific project the funds are for and that they cannot be transferred to any other project without voter approval.
9. There should be a sunset in the bill for the expiration of the provisions of the bill stipulated in the language of the bill. After ten or twenty years, the taxpayers should be given opportunity to decide if these special financing options are the best options for their communities at that time.
10. There should be a cap on proposed fares for passenger rail funded under these options presented clearly in the language on the ballot when these options are presented to the voters.
11. There should be a sunset on particualar taxes when a sufficient income is generated to retire the construction debt for the project. Maintenance cost should be generated by passenger fees.
12. The language of the bill should allow muncipalities and districts within a county to vote on accepting or rejecting these options. Many Texans discount the overall economic drain air pollution has on each person. When voting to "tax" themselves more for rail, many will think only in terms of whether they personally will use the rail. The bill needs to allow municipalities within a county to exercise the funding options through approval by the voters in their municipality as well as counties to use the option through approval by the majority of the voters in the county.
13. All exemption should be defined in the text of the bill so it does not impose too great a burden on the middle class.
14. Public transit authorities should not have to operate on the same terms as potential private partners in competing for these contracts.

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