Texas House pushes for more aggressive rainy day investing
AUSTIN — The state comptroller would have to take a bit more risk investing most of the money in the rainy day fund under a bill the House approved Thursday.
Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said his measure is about “being safe” with taxpayer dollars but also “being a better steward.”
Even if Comptroller Susan Combs continued to invest the rainy day money very conservatively, she could earn about 3 percent interest on slightly more than half of the fund balance over the next two years, Branch said. The more aggressive approach would generate about $450 million in additional earnings, he said.
The bill would require about $4.3 billion of the $8 billion currently in the rainy day fund to continue to be kept in highly liquid, low yield assets.
They are not all that different from cash, said Branch and another author of the bill, Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls.
Branch invoked a parable from the Bible as he urged colleagues to put at least some of the money to better use.
“We shouldn’t be burying our treasure,” he said.
Read more here…
Report: Panama Canal Expansion Will Aid Texas Exports
From: Texas Tribune
A $5.5 billion infrastructure project under way in Central America will have far-reaching effects on Texas, but not in the way many had originally guessed, according to a recent report commissioned by the Texas Department of Transportation.
The Panama Canal is undergoing its first expansion in more than 100 years. In early 2015, it will debut wider locks that allow for larger ships to pass through it for the first time.
Public officials and business leaders have debated for years how the expansion will impact Texas. Will it spur a boom in imports to Texas? Can the state’s network of roads, ports and rail handle such an increase in trade?
In May, TxDOT created the Panama Canal Stakeholder Working Group to assess the expansion’s impact and how Texas can better prepare. The group’s report, released last month, predicts that the project will do more for selling Texas goods to the rest of the world than the other way around.
“Exports are going to be huge,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the group’s chairman, said at a recent meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission.
The liquefied natural gas industry, in particular, may see a transformative change. Currently, the canal does not allow LNG vessels because they are too big. Those ships will be able to use the canal after its expansion.
“Asia needs natural gas,” Emmett said. “We have Eagle Ford Shale, Barnett Shale. … That’s going to be a big boom to the economy for the state of Texas.”
Cotton, pecans and corn and other Texas crops could also see a boost in sales to other countries, according to the group’s report.
The canal expansion isn’t likely to spur a corresponding boost in imports to Texas. Most Asian shippers will still choose to use ports on the West Coast and Mexico, Emmett said.
“The simple reality is a lot of ships are still going to stop at L.A.-Long Beach because it’s 11 days to go past there, to come through the canal to get to the Texas Gulf Coast and it’s 11 days back,” Emmett said.
The report recommends that TxDOT focus more funding and resources on projects that will facilitate trade, particularly trade by ship and train. The group called on TxDOT to develop a maritime division within the agency and a separate Freight Advisory Committee. The agency recently created a maritime division and is in the process of forming the advisory committee, spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said.
TxDOT should also develop a statewide freight plan, which would allow it to apply for federal funding to move projects in the plan forward, according to the report.
The report also calls for increased investment to develop the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway, a coastal canal that stretches more than 1,000 miles and connects Texas ports with ports in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. In its report, the Working Group called the waterway a “sleeping giant” that has the potential to absorb part of the boost in trade that may develop from the Panama Canal expansion. The waterway should be fully properly dredged to a depth of 12 feet to draw more trade traffic, according to the report.
Beyer said TxDOT estimates dredging the waterway to 12 feet would cost $60 million. Maintaining the dredging would cost another $30 million annually, she said.
The Legislature may consider the report’s recommendations as it works on TxDOT’s next budget during the 2013 legislative session.
Tolling Texans: Interactive State Toll Map
Texas is in the midst of a tolling boom. While public funding for transportation falls far short of the state’s needs, Texas is increasingly turning to toll roads and toll lanes to pick up the slack.
This map identifies every toll project currently open to drivers in Texas as well as more than 15 other toll projects in some stage of development. We’ve classified the projects under three categories: “Open,” “Open but unfinished” and “In development.” Projects labeled “Open but unfinished” are open to drivers, but still have portions that are in development. Projects that are “In development” can run the gamut from being the focus of environmental impact studies to ones that are under construction and scheduled to open later this year.
Drivers in Houston and Dallas have been used to paying tolls to get around more congested routes for more than a decade. In recent years, Austin, Tyler and Laredo have joined the club. Other communities including Fort Worth, El Paso, Brownsville and Hidalgo County have toll projects in different stages of development.
The majority of the toll projects on the map are based on mapping files provided by the Texas Department of Transportation, the North Texas Tollway Authority, the Harris County Toll Road Authority, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the San Antonio-Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority and the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority.
Additionally, toll projects overseen by the Metropolitan Authority of Harris County, the Camino Real Central Mobility Authority in El Pasoand the Texas Department of Transportation were pieced together by hand based on information provided by those agencies.
Opening date announced for 85-mph toll road
From: My San Antonio
A Central Texas toll road boasting the country’s fast speed limit will open to traffic Oct. 24.
And for the first two weeks, until Nov. 10, driving on the toll road will be free. Drivers will have to pay starting Nov. 11.
Construction on the road, which stretches from south Austin to Interstate 10 in Seguin, began in 2009. The 41-mile corridor is an extension of an existing toll road, Texas 130, that connects Georgetown to south Austin.
The Texas 130 toll system will be entirely automated. Drivers will either buy an electronic toll tag, or a bill will be mailed to the vehicle’s registered owner.
Personal vehicles will be able to drive for about 15 cents per mile if the vehicles are outfitted with the electronic toll tag. The cost will be slightly higher for vehicles without the tag.
Study: Inadequate Roads Cost Texans Billions
From: Texas Tribune
Issues including traffic congestion, damage to vehicles from roads needing repair and costs incurred in accidents caused by insufficient safety features on roadways cost drivers in Texas $23 billion annually, according to a study released Tuesday by a national transportation research group.
“Texas has fallen behind in relieving traffic congestion on its major roadways and maintaining pavement conditions on these roads,” said Frank Moretti, director of Policy and Research at TRIP, the group that conducted the study.
The study suggests the condition of Texas roads could be costing individual motorists as much as $2,000 a year.
It also says the condition of Texas roads will worsen without increased funding, a difficult prospect given the state’s budget challenges. Pavement quality, for instance, is projected to decrease 30 percent statewide over the next decade given current funding. A recent study conducted by Texas A&M University and cited in the TRIP study suggests traffic congestion, which can cost motorists as much as 38 hours a year in urban areas, is likely to double statewide in the next decade.
Texas raises speed limit to 85 mph on busy highway
From: USA Today
Texas will soon open a stretch of highway with the highest speed limit in the country, giving eager drivers a chance to rip through a trip between two of the state’s largest metropolitan areas.
The Texas Transportation Commission has approved a speed limit of 85 miles per hour for a 41-mile toll road several miles east of the increasingly crowded Interstate 35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio.
“I would love it,” Austin resident Alan Guckian said. “Sometimes it’s fun to just open it up.”
But while some drivers will want to test their horsepower and radar detectors, others are asking if safety is taking a backseat.
Texas gets $30.8M in unspent transportation funds
From: Houston Business Journal
Texas will receive nearly $30.8 million for transportation projects from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHoodis releasing more than $473 million in unspent highway earmarks, according to an Aug. 17 statement. The earmarks are from fiscal year 2003 through fiscal year 2006 appropriations acts, which contain provisions that authorize the secretary to make the unused funds available for eligible surface projects.
The money will be made available immediately, and states must identify the projects they plan to fund by Oct. 1. The deadline to obligate funds is Dec. 31, after which time any unused funds will be redistributed proportionally in fiscal year 2013 to states that met the deadline.
Private Firm Planning Bullet Trains in Texas by 2020
From: Texas Tribune
IRVING – The leaders of Texas Central High-Speed Railway sound very confident for a company expecting to succeed where scores of state planners, elected officials and private interests have failed.
The firm hopes to have bullet trains moving Texans at 205 miles per hour between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston by 2020.
The bit that has raised eyebrows: The company plans to do it without seeking public financing.
“We are not the traditional state-run railroad,” Robert Eckels, the company’s president and a former Harris County judge, said at a high-speed rail forum in Irving on Tuesday. “This is designed to be a profitable high-speed rail system that will serve the people of these two great cities and in between and, ultimately, the whole state of Texas.”
Backing the Texas-based company is a group led by Central Japan Railway Company, which handles more than 100 million passengers each year on its bullet trains in Japan.
Report: Texas Jobs Near Mass Transit, Commuters Aren’t
From: Texas Tribune
Most jobs in Texas cities are near some sort of public transit, but most metropolitan workers aren’t, according to a new report by the Brookings Institute.
In Texas’ six largest metropolitan areas, 66.1 percent of jobs are accessible by public transit. But only 23 percent of workers can reach their jobs in 90 minutes or less using public transit, according to the report released Wednesday by the public policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
Texas’ numbers are below the national average in the report, titled “Where the Jobs Are: Employer Access to Labor by Transit.” Nationally, 75.5 percent of jobs in the 100 biggest metropolitan areas are accessible by public transit, but only 27.3 percent of metropolitan workers can reach those jobs in 90 minutes or less if they take public transit.
The report’s author, Adie Tomer, said it is not that transit authorities are failing their users, but that the distances between jobs and the the people who work at them are growing.
Hammond: Texas, U.S. need better transportation solutions
From: Lubbock Online
As we watch the debate in Washington surrounding the surface transportation bill, many of us outside the beltway can’t help but feel like we are witnessing a game of chicken.
Unless Congress is willing to forsake that dangerous game and adopt far-reaching solutions to our growing transportation crisis, this important pillar of our nation’s economic underpinning could be set for a collision.
After all, while the power of the private sector is bolstering many areas of our society and economy, it is disturbing some in Congress are failing to leverage this power to help deliver the roadways we need.
Are these federal legislators so far removed from the limitless possibilities of private investment they are satisfied to live with the status quo and all that it entails — namely crumbling highways and bridges?
The problem is, the status quo won’t cut it.
U.S. infrastructure problems worsen daily. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently found the United States needs more than $200 billion in infrastructure spending in the coming decade to meet the increased demand for new roadways and to maintain existing infrastructure.
The Texas Transportation Institute estimates urban congestion already costs Americans more than $115 billion per year.
Even more troubling to the taxpayer is these costs will almost certainly increase, given current trends.
Read the full article here.