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Austin representative takes on transportation

Monday, April 27, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

As the only member of the Texas House Transportation Committee hailing from Austin, freshman Democratic Rep. Celia Israel has vowed to bring the region’s gridlock woes to the Capitol. She recently told the Austin Monitor about a few of the bills she filed this session with the goal of providing mobility improvement tools to Central Texans.

“I think I’ve been able to speak to the growth that we’ve been experiencing and also be a voice for multimodal transportation,” Israel told the Monitor April 17. “We need to be mindful of creative solutions like telecommuting and transit-friendly suggestions.”

Among the bills Israel cited are House Bill 594, which would cut tolls on SH 130; HB 1324, which would create a pilot program for transit buses to use highway shoulders during peak traffic times; and HB 1839, which would increase schedule flexibility and telecommuting opportunities for state employees. Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) has filed companions for all three bills.

Most recently passed through the committee was HB 594, which members reported favorably on an 8-4 vote April 22. Israel said she believes that creating a discount program for large trucks on the segments of SH 130 that the Texas Department of Transportation operates will incentivize truck drivers to use the tolled highway rather than the congested I-35.

“I-35 is a main trade corridor for the United States of America,” Israel said. “Many of these trucks are trying to get from Laredo to Chicago, for example, and they don’t really want to come and stay in Austin. They’re trying to get around Austin.”

High toll rates for trucks on SH 130, Israel asserted, discourage truck drivers from using the eastern highway, thus creating a safety issue on the central and commuter-heavy I-35. “Too often, we see 18-wheelers turning over, having accidents and causing hours upon hours of delays on I-35,” she said.

Of course, the discount program would not come without a cost to the state, which has drawn criticism from opponents. According to the bill’s fiscal note, it would cost about $18.7 million in general fund revenue per year for the next five years, starting in fiscal year 2016.

Watson’s companion bill, Senate Bill 270, is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee.

The bus-on-shoulder pilot program that comprises HB 1324, on the other hand, has a long history of support from legislators and cruised through the House Transportation Committee April 13 with unanimous approval. It also has the support of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Policy Board.

The bill would create pilot programs on certain state highway sections in Bexar, El Paso, Tarrant and Travis counties for buses to pass traffic when the flow drops below 35 miles per hour. Israel said that each region’s respective transit authority — Capital Metro in Travis County — would bear the “minimal costs” of the program. “There would be no cost to the state of Texas,” she said.

Two previous versions of the bill have made it to former Gov. Rick Perry’s desk in past legislative sessions only to be struck down due to safety concerns. Israel said she feels confident that the program is safe and hopes the idea will get the same support from legislators that it has gotten in the past, as well as the OK from Gov. Greg Abbott.

“We’ve gotten more congestion and we have a new governor, and we hope that this governor will see things differently,” Israel said.

Watson’s companion bill, SB 422, is awaiting a public hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Israel said that HB 1839 and its expansion of options for telecommuting and flexible work schedules for state employees would particularly benefit Austin, which is home to many state agencies. The House State Affairs Committee passed the bill on a 7-2 vote April 9, with three members absent.

“We want to give state agencies the green light to implement telecommuting where it makes sense for them,” Israel said, noting that the bill would not mandate such practices. “Everyone really likes the traffic when it’s a state holiday. We want to just create more of those kinds of days.”

According to its fiscal note, the bill would have no significant cost to the state.

Watson’s companion bill, SB 1032, passed out of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee April 8 on a 6-3 vote and is now in the Senate State Affairs committee.


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