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Senate bill would strengthen regional mobility authorities

Thursday, April 2, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Texas Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee heard the particulars of a regional mobility authority clean-up bill on Wednesday. The bill, Senate Bill 1669, is not intended to provide new authority or restrict the existing authority of RMAs. Instead, it clarifies the RMA bonding authority and supports the existing powers of the RMA to operate non-commercial airports. As Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) described it, the bill was intended to give additional assurances for how RMAs would “build stuff, borrow stuff and get stuff done.” Shapleigh had no issues with the bill, once clarified.


The bill also explicitly states that RMAs can operate parking garages, which Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) considered transportation related. The bill also allowed the Grayson County RMA to take over the potential non-commercial operations of a former Air Force Base, which could be up for some converted uses.


The provision to operate an airport gave Southwest Airlines some heartburn. The airline’s lobbyist had approached Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) to help carry an amendment to clarify the type of airport that could be controlled by an RMA. Attorney Brian Cassidy, who represents a number of RMAs and helped draft the bill, said the provision was voluntary, not mandatory. The goal, Cassidy assured the committee, was to emphasize the multi-modal approach for RMAs and not to provide an avenue for hostile takeovers of existing airports.


The potential for RMAs – now there are eight in the state – to do something beyond road projects is going to be a growing issue, Nichols said. When the original language for RMAs was drafted, it always appeared to be the will of lawmakers to give RMAs enough latitude to oversee various modes of transportation.


“We gave them the opportunity for a number of ways they might do business,” Nichols said. “Now have eight RMAs, as we’re starting to see some of those interesting ideas float up to the top. I suspect we’re going to be dealing with RMA issues session after session.”


Nichols specifically excluded the Austin Bergstrom International Airport from the RMA mix. At one point, a discussion had occurred on the potential to privatize some functions of the airport. This bill specifically excluded the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority from participating in any future negotiations, because the activity had to be limited to non-commercial airports.


Cassidy said a number of regions in the state – such as Tyler-Longview – might be ripe for some type of multi-modal RMA approach. The language in the bill simply gave those communities an option to consider new approaches.


Terri Hall of Texas Uniting for Reform and Freedom spoke against the bill, saying the Bexar County RMA was on life support and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’s executive director just resigned. This was not true and Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), vice chair of the committee, corrected Hall, saying that the chair of the CTRMA board had chosen not to serve another term, and that was different than the executive director being run off due to some type of bad performance.


The clarification of bonding authority, Hall told the committee, was simply giving toll road operators the ability to find new and additional ways to encumber debt on roads that might not be viable in the first place. The ability to use profits from one toll road on another toll road – something the CTRMA has proposed and defended – simply props up what already was a bad idea, Hall said.


Hall also protested the potential use of data mining by RMAs. RMAs could be given the authority to track license plates in order to propose future routes. That’s simply an invasion of personal privacy, Hall said.


Nichols asked that Southwest Airlines to meet with Cassidy over the next week to make sure that the language on airports was airtight. The bill was left pending in the transportation committee.

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