Associated Press Writer
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Senate on Monday night approved its version of a major overhaul to the state's road-building agency, including allowing voters in counties in the state's largest metro areas to raise gas taxes to pay for road projects.
The Senate bill to renew the Texas Department of Transportation also would keep the agency's five-member commission, even though the governor-appointed panel would be subjected to closer scrutiny from lawmakers.
Those two provisions are major differences between the Senate and House with the June 1 end of the session looming.
The Senate would allow 30 counties in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso and Corpus Christi metro areas to hold local elections to raise gas taxes by up to 10 cents per gallon and raise vehicle registration fees.
Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said it will provide much-needed to money to build roads for those cities' bursting populations.
"Those areas have the greatest population and the greatest mobility needs," Carona said.
And while the Senate wants to keep the agency commission intact, the House wants to replace it with a single statewide elected commissioner and divert much of the embattled agency's power to local commissions.
The House plan would strip much of Gov. Rick Perry's power to influence one of the state's most important agencies, one that that has come under withering criticism in recent years as it plowed ahead with Perry's vision for the Trans-Texas Corridor, a superhighway system of roads, railway and utility lines crisscrossing Texas.
The Senate would keep the commission but reduce the length of terms from six years to two. That could greatly expand the Senate's influence over the agency because the Senate confirms the governor's appointments.
With the end of the session a week away, some lawmakers worried the rush on such a massive bill would create more problems.
"I hope we don't add to the chaos and confusion that is already over there," said Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.
The 14,000-employee agency has been a target for lawmakers this session. A recent review under the state "sunset" process called for revamping the department's governing bard and its dealings with lawmakers and the public.
"There was a lot of distrust," said Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, sponsor of the transportation rewrite.
Both the House and Senate versions would repeal the Trans-Texas Corridor. That won't prevent governments from pursuing toll roads, but the version planned for by Perry and some lawmakers in recent years is "dead," Hegar said.
The Trans-Texas Corridor came under fire almost since its inception. Rural landowners in particular were opposed to giving up their property for the project. Perry and other state officials had already said they were scrapping the original concept.
"In this bill it's dead. In the House bill it's dead," Hegar said. "It's dead."
Like the House bill, the Senate also voted to create new legislative oversight to review agency policy. The Senate also wants to prohibit the agency from lobbying state lawmakers.
The Senate came close to joining the House in banning the controversial use of red-light cameras. The House bill would phase them out and the Senate at first voted to add the same provision, but then changed its mind and removed the ban.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.