Transit bill would boost area's plans
Congress OKs $286 billion measure; Texas stands to get millions more annually
By TONY HARTZEL
The Dallas Morning News
Congress on Friday approved an oft-delayed transportation bill that promises to bring an average of $800 million annually in additional funding to Texas and funnels $669 million statewide to high-profile projects such as the Trinity River signature bridges near downtown Dallas.
The $286 billion bill would boost North Texas transportation financing by millions of dollars. The increase comes from growth in the amount spent on roads and a requirement to return a greater percentage of the gas tax Texans pay to Washington.
The bill also provides new options to charge tolls on new federal roadways, and it lays a strong foundation for Dallas Area Rapid Transit's coming request for $700 million for rail lines to Fair Park, Pleasant Grove and northwest Dallas.
The bill, which now goes to President Bush for his signature, drew overwhelming support in both houses.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn was one of only four senators to vote against the bill. He argued that the state deserves a larger share of money than it would receive in the new bill.
"This bill simply continues the pervasive and longstanding funding inequity, and I cannot support that," he said, adding that the bill was "cut up in special-interest projects and pork-barrel spending."
Texas will eventually get back 92 percent of all federal gas taxes it sends to Washington, an increase from the current 90.5 percent level. Texas officials have argued that other factors reduced its share to 88 percent in the current bill.
Mr. Cornyn's Texas colleague, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, said the state would receive $800 million because of an improvement in federal financing formulas.
"That is a significant funding increase to be put to use for Texas roadways, railways, bridges and other transportation improvements across the state," she said. "While this reimbursement rate is still not good enough, the bill provides important funding for Texas transit projects."
Trinity Project a winner
One of the biggest local winners appeared to be the city of Dallas and the Trinity River area around downtown, which received almost $78 million to help complete the new signature bridge on Interstate 30 and provide seed money for a signature bridge on Interstate 35E.
The last federal transportation bill expired in 2003, but officials in Dallas and elsewhere were forced to endure 22 months of political delays before they learned how much money their priority projects would receive.
"I'm terribly grateful to the whole Dallas delegation for getting the money for the Trinity River bridges, but I'm especially thankful to Congressman [Pete] Sessions, Congresswoman [Eddie Bernice] Johnson and Senator Hutchison, who have always been the biggest cheerleaders for this Trinity River Project, and without them, we wouldn't have a project," Dallas Mayor Laura Miller said.
A large portion of the bridges' funding, $17 million, came from some late negotiating across the aisle between Ms. Johnson, the ranking Texas Democrat on the House transportation and infrastructure committee, and Ms. Hutchison, the state's senior senator.
The Senate version of the bill lopped 20 percent from all requests for projects specifically named in the bill, so Ms. Johnson appealed to Ms. Hutchison late last week to dedicate money from the Senate toward the Trinity River bridges.
"I had great cooperation with Kay Bailey Hutchison," said Ms. Johnson, who quickly realized she couldn't restore full financing for all her designated projects. "I decided to try and make up the money for the bridges, and that would be enough."
Other members of the local congressional delegation, including House Republicans Mr. Sessions and Jeb Hensarling, both of Dallas, and Rep. Kenny Marchant of Coppell, also played important roles in financing the Trinity River bridges.
DART fares well
Dallas Area Rapid Transit also came out ahead in the bill, which will devote $286 billion to highway, transit and other transportation projects through 2009. Mass transit will receive more than $50 billion, a rate roughly equivalent to transit funding in the previous transportation bill.
DART will receive a minimum of $260 million in federal funding for its southeast and northwest rail lines. The agency will file a formal request for $700 million in September, and the $260 million guaranteed by the bill gives DART a reason to be optimistic that Congress will provide the full amount, said Gary Thomas, DART's president and executive director.
"We now have a strong feeling about our $700 million request, and maybe a stronger feeling than in the past," he said. "We're in good shape. It's good to have a long-term bill. It's also good for our projects."
If all goes as planned, the Federal Transit Administration will rule on DART's request in the spring. Local residents could see the first work on the rail extensions in June, and the first extension to Fair Park could open in mid-2009. An early project to straighten out the rail line east of the Plaza of the Americas building in downtown could begin in January.
"The timing here should work out perfectly," Mr. Thomas said. "Everything is falling into place."
The transit agency also will receive $10.7 million for bus shelters and other bus amenities and $2.6 million for a Carrollton rail study in the Belt Line Road area, thanks to requests from Ms. Johnson and Mr. Marchant.
"Our delegation did a phenomenal job," said Mr. Thomas, who also praised the support of Ms. Hutchison and Mr. Sessions.
As the bill wound its way through Congress at higher dollar amounts – which triggered delays and threats of presidential vetoes – supporters often argued that the bill's purposes were part infrastructure, part safety and part economic stimulus.
Supporters said the money spent in the bill would create millions of jobs. They also argued that money for infrastructure is well spent because congestion costs American drivers 3.6 billion hours of delay and 5.7 billion gallons of wasted fuel every year. Substandard road conditions and roadside hazards are a factor in nearly one-third of the 42,000 traffic fatalities annually.
Much of the credit for Texas getting more money goes to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who fought for Texas and other "donor states" to get a higher share, Ms. Johnson said.
The exact impact on North Texas, though positive, remains uncertain.
"How this will benefit the North Texas region, we don't know yet," said Mark Ball, spokesman for the Dallas office of the Texas Department of Transportation.
The bill may also signal a subtle shift in the way highways are funded. An amendment introduced by Sam Johnson, R-Plano, allows for up to $15 billion to be used nationwide to help finance road construction with private money. The private activity bonds will allow state and local governments to issue tax-exempt bonds that will be repaid by a private entity.
In addition, an amendment sponsored by Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, will allow Texas to receive more financial credits from the federal government for building toll roads with state and local money.
"There are some great things in this legislation," said Coby Chase, legislative affairs director for the state Transportation Department. "A lot of people are focused on the dollar amount. There's a lot in there we're really happy about."
Staff writer Katie Menzer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
NORTH TEXAS PROJECTS
Funding for projects close to home:
$77.8 million Trinity River bridges
$8.2 million Intermodal project, Belt Line Road, Carrollton
$3.6 million I-635/I-35E interchange
WHAT IT MEANS
Major victories for Texas transportation include (all figures are estimates and subject to final confirmation):
Texas receives an average of $2.1 billion a year from gas taxes it sends to Washington; HR 3 raises that to $2.9 billion a year (excluding earmarks), a 37.4 percent increase.
220 project earmarks totaling $669 million for highway and transit projects throughout Texas.
Authorization of a new $15 billion Private Activity Bond program for transportation facilities that would encourage private sector investments and partnerships, especially involving the Trans-Texas Corridor.
Additional options to impose tolls on new federal roadways to relieve congestion and deliver projects faster.
A minimum $260 million in federal funding for Dallas Area Rapid Transit's rail line construction in Fair Park, Pleasant Grove and Northwest Dallas. That amount is viewed by DART as a good first step for the agency's attempt to get $700 million from the federal government.
SOURCE: Texas Department of Transportation
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