Bus-Only Shoulder Bill to be Heard in Senate Committee Monday; House status

House Bill 2327, the bill that would let Capital Metro operate buses on highway shoulders, was left pending in the House Transportation Committee after it came up late Wednesday afternoon. This has been fairly common practice in most committees for many bills; the committee could act on the bill at their next meeting or subsequent ones.

A big, big thanks to the many organizations and individuals who signed cards or submitted letters in support: the City of Austin, Glenn Gadbois, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Gerald Daugherty, Envision Central Texas, the Downtown Austin Alliance, Alliance for Public Transportation, Real Estate Council of Austin, CARTS, the Texas Transit Association, Sinclair Black, CTRMA, David Richardson, and Lone Star Rail.

On the Senate side, the companion bill filed by Senator Jeff Wentworth, SB 1102, will be heard in the Senate Transportation & Homeland Security Committee this Monday, April 11 at 10:00 AM or upon adjournment/recess of Nominations in Room E1.028 of the Capitol. To learn how you can register your support of this bill, keep reading!

Continue reading “Bus-Only Shoulder Bill to be Heard in Senate Committee Monday; House status”

No buses on shoulders for you

So my last blog post related to the legislative session prematurely said, “Overall, we achieved much of what was in our legislative agenda: bus-only shoulders,” blah, blah, blah among other things. Yippee! Well, so foolish I am. I spoke too soon for I forgot about that last, not-so-little step called consideration by the governor. And unfortunately, one of our bills was vetoed. Yep, V-E-T-O. No buses on shoulders for you!

If you recall, Senate Bill 434, carried by two of our own: Senator Jeff Wentworth and Representative Valinda Bolton, would have created a pilot program under which Capital Metro (and only three other Texas transit agencies) would have been allowed to operate buses on pre-approved sections of highway shoulders in order to bypass traffic congestion.

The bill was very cautious in setting up the program. It would have been established by TxDOT and in conjunction with DPS and the involved transit agencies. The bill required TxDOT to consider safety, travel time reliability, driver and passenger perceptions, level of service and maintenance, and capital improvements.

Additionally, other specific parameters were also spelled out. Buses would only be allowed to travel on sections of highway shoulders that TxDOT approved in advance and the sections would be clearly marked for bus-only use. Speed limits were set based on the experience of several other communities in America, which have already implemented bus-only shoulders safely and effectively for over a decade. Buses would only be allowed to use the designated sections of highway shoulders when overall traffic slowed to 35 miles per hour or less, and the bus could only travel at 15 miles per hour greater than the prevailing traffic, with the maximum bus speed still limited to 35 mph. The bus operator would not be required to use the bus-only shoulder if he/she did not feel it was safe.

Despite a number of independent safety studies attesting to the positive experience in the rest of the country (the State of Minnesota has over 300 miles of bus-only shoulders), Governor Perry was not willing to sign the bill. In his veto statement, he cited a concern that use of the highway shoulders by transit buses “would leave no emergency lane, creating a danger to motorists, emergency personnel and passengers aboard transit buses,” though we assured him that we would work with the City of Austin to ensure that the use of highway shoulders by our buses would not impede emergency vehicle passage. (Many thanks to the City, specifically Karla Villalon and Rob Spillar, for having included this in their legislative agenda and for having written a last-minute letter to the governor asking for his support.)

Though we are very disappointed with the veto—it’s the second time we’ve tried to get this passed—we’ll work with the governor’s office over the next few years to see if we can get it through next session. Perhaps then, the third time will actually be the charm for Capital Metro.

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While the legislative order of things escaped me regarding the bus-only shoulder legislation, the other items I had written about previously actually panned out as I described. Senate Bill 1263, the bill carried by Senator Kirk Watson and Representative Eddie Rodriguez that prescribed a number of changes for Capital Metro, was signed by the governor. That bill, which goes into effect September 1, makes changes to our board composition and our abilities to set our own fares and operate passenger rail, and provides us with some new tools that we’ll need to operate passenger rail. Governor Perry was also willing to sign the bill that lets Capital Metro (and all Texas transit agencies) use the State’s travel discounts when our employees or board members travel for Capital Metro-related duties. (Thank you Senator Duell and Representative Todd Smith!)

If you want more details on the Watson and Rodriguez bill, or any other legislation that I might have written about before, read my previous gobbledygook online at http://capmetroblog.blogspot.com/search/label/legislative%20agenda. (Check out the gobbledygook hotlink! A fun story, which goodness knows we all need more of.)

Bye Bye Legislature, at least for now

June 2, 2009: the legislature is adjourned, at least for now. I am not sure if I am relieved or wish they would stick around longer. It boggles my mind how critical statewide policy is supposed to be made in less than five months. But, it is what it is, right?

So, what happened to Capital Metro? Overall, we achieved much of what was in our legislative agenda: bus-only shoulders, civilian fare enforcement, contracted peace officer authority, and use of the State’s travel discount. Unfortunately though, due to the State’s budget constraints, we weren’t able to negotiate an agreement with them so that State employees could benefit from annual transit passes. Also very unfortunately, the Legislature was not willing to grant local entities more funding mechanisms for local transportation projects (the local-option funding measure doggedly and valiantly led by Senator John Carona). I find this to be incredibly disappointing but sadly, I am not surprised.

There were also a lot of other changes that were carried forward in legislation by Senator Kirk Watson and Representative Eddie Rodriguez. (This is probably what most of you are most interested in.) Those affect our board composition; our ability to operate passenger rail and set our own fares; and internal audit, review and reporting requirements of our agency.

If you’re interested in what passed that most directly affects Capital Metro, here’s a summary.

SENATE BILL 1263 (Senator Watson, Rep. Rodriguez) — This is the big bill.

Board composition
: Changes the composition of the Capital Metro board, most significantly by increasing the total number of members from seven to eight by adding another CAMPO appointee. Watson’s original proposal had called for more significant changes but negotiations in the past few days resulted in the Legislature essentially maintaining the current board composition with some minor tweaks.

The new board composition is as follows:

  • 3 members appointed by CAMPO — 1 must be an elected official, 1 must have at least 10 years of experience as a financial or accounting professional, and 1 must have at least 10 years of experience in an executive-level position.
  • 2 members appointed by the City of Austin — 1 must be an elected official
  • 1 member appointed by Travis County
  • 1 member appointed by Williamson County
  • 1 member, who must be an elected official, appointed by all the small city mayors in Capital Metro’s service area (which excludes City of Austin).

This is not much different than today in that the City of Austin currently appoints two reps, Travis County appoints a rep, various Williamson County officials appoint a rep, and the small city mayors in Travis County appoint a rep. The big change is the CAMPO component. Today they appoint two reps and there are no specific requirements of those individuals. The change gives them an additional rep and requires specific types of experience or elected official status for those reps.

Rail referendum requirements: Allows Capital Metro to forgo the highly unique referendum currently required of our agency in order for us to operate passenger rail (and which is required even if we are not needing to ask the voters for any additional funds to build the system, as was the case for our Red Line that was built within existing means) if

  • We are entering into a contract to build, operate or maintain a fixed rail transit system for another entity, or
  • Voters already approved funds for the project at an election called by our agency or another entity.

Fare approval abilities: Allows Capital Metro to set our own fares (like most any other transit agency in the country), except that CAMPO can veto the base fare if they do so within 60 days of the board it (which is unlike most any other transit agency in the country).

Internal auditor: Requires the Capital Metro board to hire an internal auditor who would report directly to the board. (Today our internal auditor reports both to the board and to our staff president.)

Sunset review: Requires Capital Metro to undergo a sunset review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, but without the possibility of being abolished. This would happen once now and/or next year depending on when it starts and how long it lasts, and again in 2016/2017.

Annual reporting requirements: Requires Capital Metro to provide annual reports to other entities to which we have any financial obligations.

Other operational abilities: Specifies that nonpayment of a fare is not a crime of moral turpitude (this is important for aspiring attorneys and other professionals I hear), allows Capital Metro to hire civilian fare enforcement officers, and ensures that peace officers with whom we contract for security can enforce violations against the Capital Metro system while on duty for Capital Metro (because we contract with APD and they may be on the train in Leander as part of their security duties).

SB 899 (Senator Duell, Rep. Smith) allows all Texas transit agencies to use the State’s travel discounts when employees or officers of the agency are traveling for work. (Saves us and thus you money!)

SB 434 (Senator Wentworth, Rep. Bolton) allows Capital Metro, at least in Travis County, (and San Antonio VIA, Denton County Transportation Authority, and Sun Metro in El Paso) to operate buses on highway shoulders during times of heavy traffic congestion in areas pre-approved by TxDOT. Basically, if traffic slows to 35 mph, our buses can use the highway shoulders as a travel lane but there are limits on just how fast they can go compared to the rest of traffic so that buses don’t go unsafely whizzing by the other motorists who will be stuck in traffic because they didn’t take the bus. (I’m sure I’ll be one of those people one day just for being so snide.) There will be signs noting it’s only for public bus use.

That’s about it. I have a bunch of bills to dig through and see if anything else passed that might have helped or hurt us. Fun, fun, fun. If you’re needing some good bedtime reading, let me know. I got a stack of it.

Calling all policy wonks!

Time for an update on the status of Capital Metro’s legislative agenda.

Where to start? What’s in the hopper? A number of things, all of which are moving along but the clock is ticking with only 35 days left in the session that ends June 1. Most of our bills have had committee hearings in at least one of the chambers and a few have been approved by at least one side of the Legislature but we’re still working to see what will make it out.

For more information about the status of some major bills that could affect Capital Metro, read on…

‘OMNIBUS’ BILLS re: fare enforcement ability, confirmation of contracted peace officer authority, and use of State travel discounts
– Senate Bill 1263 (Watson) and House Bill 2469 (Rodriguez)
– Status: HB 2469 was reported favorably from the Transportation Committee and is now awaiting scheduling by the Calendars Committee for consideration by the full House. On the Senate side, no hearing has been scheduled yet in the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

STATE TRAVEL DISCOUNTS FOR ALL PUBLIC TRANSIT AGENCIES
– SB 1264 (Watson), SB 899 (Duell), and HB 2899 (T. Smith)
– Status: Both of the Senate bills have been approved on the floor and SB 899 has been scheduled for consideration by the House Transportation Committee on 04/29/09. On the House side, Smith’s bill has been favorably reported from the Transportation Committee.

BUS-ONLY SHOULDERS
– SB 434 (Wentworth) and HB 1790 (Bolton)
– Status: The Senate has approved SB 434 but at the requests of senators representing these areas, they removed Williamson County and added El Paso. The House Transportation Committee took up the House version of HB 1790 last Thursday. The committee substitute that Rep. Bolton offered also excluded Williamson County but it also excluded El Paso County because of concerns by a legislator representing that area. The House Committee didn’t take a vote on Thursday so we’ll see if they take up the Senate version of the bill this week (or next, etc.) and if they’ll vote out the Senate or House version.

FUNDING BILLS
– There are a number of bills, and related constitutional amendments (the SJRs and the HJRs), that would authorize different means of local-option funding for transportation, including transit, projects. There are also a number of bills that would authorize additional vehicle registration fees to fund the same.

Local-option funding bills, and related constitutional amendments, include
• SB 855 & SJR 24 (Carona)
• SJR 52 (Davis), which is a duplicate of SJR 24
• HB 3448 & HJR 122 (Rodriguez), with HJR 122 identical to Carona’s SJR
• HB 9 & HJR 9 (Truitt), which is the companion to SB 855 and with HJR 9 identical to Carona’s SJR
• HB 1674 (Villareal)
• HB 3341 (Miklos).

Vehicle registration-only bills include
• SB 249, Shapleigh
• SB 294, Hinojosa (identical to HB 1716)
• HB 1716, Gonzales Toureilles (identical to SB 294)

– Status: Since there are so many bills regarding this issue, I’ll give a simple summary and say that Carona’s bill and Davis’ constitutional amendment have been approved by the Senate, and that all of the House local-option funding bills and House constitutional amendments were taken up by the House Transportation Committee last week but were left pending with no action. For the vehicle registration fee bills, both of the Senate versions have been approved on the floor but the House Transportation Committee hasn’t taken up the issue yet.

CAMPO PEER REVIEW-RELATED BILLS

– SB 2015 (Watson) and HB 4432 (Rodriguez).
– Status: Watson’s bill has been approved by the Senate. Rodriguez’s companion is awaiting a scheduled date for consideration by the House Transportation Committee.

I didn’t go into the content of the bills since, if you’re wonky enough to read this, you’re probably already versed in them. If you need a refresher or primer though, info about the content of the bills, save for Watson’s and Rodriguez’s Peer review-related bills, can be found in a previous blog posting. An overview of the Watson and Rodriguez Peer Review-related bills (as written by us, Cap Metro staff) can also be found online here. (Note that Rep. Rodriguez has since publicly stated his intention to move forward with Senator Watson’s bill and not the version that he previously filed.) And if you really want to dig around, find the actual bills and much more detailed information through the Texas Legislature Online. (You can do an easy bill search by entering the bill number in the top right-hand corner of the page. e.g., simply enter “HB 2469.”)

While we track a lot of other bills, those are the big ones that we’re advancing or watching. Here’s hoping that the next time I submit a post, I can tell you that all of the bills we wanted to pass, did! Well, maybe I’ll sneak an update in before June 1. Holler if you have any thoughts or questions.

Hello, Legislature!

Cheers to the first day of the State’s 81st legislative session that began today, because Capital Metro’s got a lot on our plate! We’re simply trying to keep up with ways to provide the modern-day necessity of transit in an urban area. What’s on our wish list, you ask? A lot. OK, it’s not that much but it’s a fair amount so I’ll just write about some of our more interesting initiatives.

Read on for more information and background about each issue, but for ease of reading, here’s a short list of some of our priorities:
– Civilian fare enforcement abilities on MetroRail.
– Enhanced security abilities throughout our service area.
– The ability for buses to drive on highway shoulders during massive congestion.
– New community funding sources for transit.

And while not part of the legislative program that our Board asked us to advance, I’ll touch upon one more issue that could come up in the session: the referendum required of our agency in order to build, or even operate, passenger rail.

Our Red Line between Leander and Austin opens this March. Seems pretty standard, or at least not unusual, for a transit agency to operate passenger rail—even in Texas—but we still need some changes to state law so that we can more effectively operate a regional rail system. Like Dallas and Houston for example, we won’t have barriers or turnstiles to board MetroRail so we’re looking for the ability, also like that of Dallas and Houston, to hire civilian employees who can enforce fares by requesting proof of payment and issuing tickets if necessary. We also need to make sure that the peace officers with whom we contract to serve as some of our security (currently APD) are able to use their law enforcement abilities if there is a crime occurring on Cap Metro property outside of their jurisdiction so this too is on our agenda.

We’re also working on a couple of efforts from last session and I’m especially optimistic about one of them this time: the ability for our buses to drive on highway shoulders when roadways become congested, of course only where safe and if approved by TxDOT. We’re very fortunate to work with Senator Jeff Wentworth and his hardworking staff again. They were able to get this passed in the Senate last time but unfortunately we just ran out of time in the House. (New House Speaker Joe Straus led on that side of the Legislature.) This practice is used all over America and in effect creates extra highway capacity, but only for buses, for very little money–an easy way for public transportation to achieve a travel-time advantage. Per TxDOT, the estimated cost per mile is only $2,000 for sections that are already structurally sound. (Compare that to their estimate of $8 million per mile for a new lane on an existing highway.) Other good news is that this past December, the House Transportation Committee already recommended this legislation.

There are two other big issues that I also want to mention. One item is part of our agency’s legislative agenda and the other isn’t, but was recommended as part of a recent CAMPO study of our agency.

The first item deals with, frankly, money. Capital Metro doesn’t have enough funds to create a truly regional transit system and, further, we are limited in our ability to do this. As a result of how communities are allowed to join Capital Metro under State law, our current service area does not reflect the residency and work patterns of Central Texas. If you are geeky enough to read this Capital Metro blog, you probably know that communities like Round Rock, Cedar Park, and Pflugerville are not in our service area. To join Capital Metro, an entity must dedicate a penny of their community’s sales tax to our agency’s funding. This is what Austin, Leander, Manor, Lago Vista, Precinct 2 of Travis County, and 5 more communities do. People all over Travis and Williamson Counties want and need public transit. Remember when gas was $4 a gallon and our ridership went through the roof? To me, one Statesman story said it all. If I recall correctly, something like four of the five people in the photos on our Express buses did not live in our service area. And in 2030, more than half of our metro area population will live outside of the Capital Metro service area. Clearly, Capital Metro’s service area needs to be larger.

But the problem is that these communities, which so desperately need transit, have committed all of the local sales tax the State allows them to their community’s other priorities like economic development, property tax relief, or roadways. So we have to think of other ways that people can pay for transit other than sales tax.

One of the ideas that is being kicked around in this region, and all over other major metro areas in the state, has emanated from North Central Texas. For the past two sessions, prompted by a desire to expand their regional rail system, the North Central Texas area has asked the Legislature for permission to let communities‘bust’ the local sales tax cap but only for transit. The Legislature wasn’t quite comfortable with this and suggested they come back with other creative suggestions that could be applied statewide. While there are still a number of details to be worked out, they are now proposing that local communities be allowed to levy a limited number of taxes and fees, from a Legislature-approved list of options, for local transportation projects. These monies could only be raised if approved by the voters. Capital Metro’s also supportive of this idea but we’re trying to figure out the best way to address issues such as governance and equity—some very tough issues to tackle but definitely worth tackling.

Lastly, I want to mention the State’s requirement that our agency secure voter approval in order to build or operate passenger rail, even if we do so within existing funds, like we did for the Red Line. Removal of the requirement isn’t part of our Capital Metro’s legislative program but the study that CAMPO just wrapped up of our agency recommended that this be removed. No other transit agency in the state has this requirement and, to our knowledge, no other agency in the country does either. While passenger rail is a fairly typical function of many urban mass transit agencies, most agencies still have to go to referendum to have the actual funding approved. That’s totally understandable and realistically, this would be the same for our area. I don’t know of any way that more passenger rail could be built in Central Texas without going to the voters for funding approval. Even though Capital Metro has been this region’s public transportation provider for over 20 years, this requirement can unfortunately cause other entities to be hesitant to work with us if they already have to go to referendum once for funding.

Capital Metro’s got a lot to chew off, and there’s still a little bit more, but I won’t continue droning on. No one can guess what will happen at the Legislature but I’m optimistic that they’ll see fit to grant us these abilities so that we can continue improving upon the service that we provide, and that Central Texans need. Traffic is a mess and there is so much support for public transportation right now. It’s an opportune time for the State to make these changes. My little slogan is that we simply need 21st century tools to do a 21st century job. Here’s hoping for a *happy* happy hour in 140 days.