The local option transit tax: what it's all about
Mon April 6, 2009 11:44 am

I'm intrigued by SB 855, John Carona's local option tax legislation to fund transportation improvements in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso have also attached themselves to the bill. It would seem that such a bill--a tax increase! and new fees!--wouldn't have much of a chance in a Republican legislature, not to mention a Grover Norquist disciple in the governor's office--and indeed the Texas Public Policy Foundation opposes the bill. But the odds are that the bill will become law, and the reasons why explain a lot about how power works in the Texas Capitol.

One of the ways power works in the Texas Capitol is that not all power originates in the Texas Capitol. This bill is sought by the business communities in Dallas and Fort Worth. The Dallas Morning News is doing the cheerleading against "job-killing" congestion. The real power in this state is the big-city business establishments. Always have has been, always will be. The Republican base will hate this bill, but they're no match for the money.

First, let's hear from Senator Carona. This is his statement of intent in the bill analysis:

The major urban areas in Texas face tremendous challenges with regard to funding of transportation and mobility infrastructure projects. Billions of dollars are needed to fund new, already identified highway and roadway projects, safety improvement projects, and bridges and mass transit systems such as passenger rail systems. New funding tools are needed to address these challenges, including tools for local government entities, which have transportation infrastructure obligations and responsibilities.

One such tool would be the ability to raise funds through fee assessments or fee increases authorized by voter approval. However, under current law, counties, which would conduct the elections involving such measures, do not have the mechanism to call for a countywide election on the issue of fee increases.

C.S.S.B. 855 provides for local options regarding mobility improvement projects in certain counties and municipalities.

Here are the revenue sources contemplated by the bill:

(1) a tax on the retail sale of gasoline or diesel fuel in the county as described by Section 446.055; [the cited section allows the tax to be 2, 4, 6, 8, or 10 cents]

(2) a mobility improvement fee, in an amount not less than $1 or more than $60, imposed on a person registering a motor vehicle in the county at the time of registration, except that the fee is not imposed on a person registering a motor vehicle in the manner provided by Section 501.0234 (Duty of Vehicle Dealer on Sale of Certain Vehicles), Transportation Code;

(3) a parking management fee, in an amount not to exceed $2 per day per vehicle use of a parking space, for paid parking facilities owned by the county or a municipality in the county that are available to the general public, excluding metered parking and parking at an international airport located partially in two separate counties each with a population above one million;

(4) an annual motor vehicle emissions fee on vehicles registered in the county as described by Section 446.056;

(5) a fee for the renewal of a driver's license issued to a county resident as described by Section 446.057;

(6) a Texas new resident roadway impact fee, in an amount not less than $1 or more than $250, imposed on each person registering a motor vehicle previously registered in another state or country, to be collected at the time of registration.

Can you imagine what the Republican reaction would be if the Democrats were in power and tried to pass a bill that would require anybody moving to Dallas to pay a $250 tariff to bring their car into the county? If I read Section 446.057 correctly, the renewal fee is due when you renew your driver's license, so it essentially doubles the renewal fee. Similarly, the emissions fee is in addition to the required annual emissions inspection and is paid simultaneously. Then there's that "parking management fee" for the privilege of parking in government-owned lots, on top of the parking charge. I'll tell you what the R's would say. They would say the Democrats are bringing California-style government to Texas.

My biggest concern with the bill is that when you read about the revenue sources, they are all related to automobiles. The voter will be led into thinking that he can drive on the projects he is paying for. But that is not the case. The community leaders who are pushing this bill want rail projects. I spoke to a friend last week who is a strong advocate for the bill and gave my little speech about rail moving one-sixth of the number of people in an hour as a lane of freeway. This was the response I received: "Rail is not about moving people. It is about moving dirt."

I get it now. This is a real estate play. Freeways have changed cities in ways that are less than desirable. They cut off neighborhoods from the rest of the city. They are business-unfriendly, because they move traffic past commercial areas. And, of course, they contribute to sprawl and pollution. Rail changes cities in ways that are desirable. They combat sprawl by concentrating development around rail stations. The provide an opportunity for redeveloping deteriorating residential and commercial areas and adding value to the tax rolls. Freeways are better at moving people. Rail is better at moving civic values. This is why the business community in North Texas has thrown all of its weight behind this bill, and this is why it is going to pass, and Governor Perry is going to let it become law. It's the oldest of power principles: Let the big dog eat.

But if Austin ever gets to vote on such a plan, I'll never vote to let my gas tax money be used for rail.

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