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Commissioners back new vehicle registration fee

Monday, March 9, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court has endorsed a proposal to raise vehicle registration fees to bolster funding for transportation projects. At their regular voting session Tuesday, the commissioners unanimously backed two bills at the Texas Legislature that would charge county car owners an extra $10 each year. The proposal would also let the commissioners ask voters to raise the new fee up to $20.

Two Austin lawmakers — Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Donna Howard — filed the identical bills in their respective chambers last month. So far, only Watson’s bill has been referred to committee, though it has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

According to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, 1,070,670 vehicles were registered in Travis County in 2014. Barring a significant drop in car ownership in the near future, a $10 increase of the registration fee could net the county more than $10 million each year.

Under the proposal, the additional revenue would largely be limited to county transportation projects overseen by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. And commissioners would not be able to impose the new fee until the proposed projects survived a three-step vetting process.

“A majority of the Commissioners Court, a majority of the entire board of CTRMA, and then a majority of the Travis County appointees on the CTRMA board would have to make an agreement,” Watson’s policy analyst, Kelsey Erickson, told commissioners Tuesday.

Commissioner Brigid Shea raised an issue with the language in the bills that would allow the new revenue to be spent on projects outside of Travis County.

“I have enough problems with our taxpayers having to foot the bill for other surrounding expenses on a lot of different things, so for me that would be an issue,” she said.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez also raised concerns about a cross-county spending project.

“The rules we’ve usually followed is that we couldn’t spend Travis County money in other counties,” Gómez said.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt reminded her colleagues that the county has spent money in the past on roads that dip across county lines, including Anderson Mill Road, with parts of it straying into Williamson County before returning to Travis. Erickson also re-emphasized that a majority of commissioners would have to approve any project that would ultimately be funded by the new fees.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty raised the potential political problem with diverting the new revenue straight to CTRMA instead of county coffers.

“It needs to be explained that this is not really designed to put more money into the RMA (Regional Mobility Authority), necessarily,” he stressed. “That’s still a little bit of a lightning rod with some people, because they think that the only reason the RMA exists is to toll everything.”

Eckhardt agreed, and declared that it would be “incumbent” upon the commissioners to follow the language of the bills and make clear agreements with the mobility authority before authorizing any new fees.

“The RMA will essentially have a fiduciary capacity of holding this money for us, but we must be very vigilant and negotiate well in the upfront exactly how the money is intended to be used,” Eckhardt said.

You can track Watson’s SB 579 here and Howard’s HB 1432 here.


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