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Legislative Log: From texting and tolls, to ride-hailing reprieves, the 85th Texas Legislature does transportation

Image of Texas Capitol Building facing the South steps for a blog on CTX Mobility Matters | Blog for Mike Heiligenstein

The special session of the 85th Texas Legislature is here, and transportation is not likely to be on the agenda. So now seems a good time to recap the final transportation tally of “yays” and “nays” from the regular session, including those that received Governor Abbott’s signature. While some of the bills obviously interest us as a regional transportation agency because they affect our ability to carry out our mission, others are of personal interest, especially when it comes to safety and convenience – after all, we’re commuters, too.

 

Closely watched bills that were passed and signed
into law

 

HB 62 — banning texting while driving: In my many transportation conversations, I haven’t met anyone who thinks texting and driving is in our best interests. Governor Abbott agrees: After some speculation about whether he would sign this into law, he did so the first week of June. Texas now joins 47 other states that have similar laws, although the Texas version bans only texting – not voice or other internet or navigational use. The governor’s reported hesitation was not that he didn’t agree with the bill’s intent, but based on concerns about the “patchwork” of local laws that crisscross the state. He is trying to address this issue by asking lawmakers to pass a state law during the special session that will roll back any local ordinances that reach farther than this soon to be state law. Effective 9/1/2017

SB 312 — the TxDOT Sunset bill, continued authorization of that agency for 12 years. This TxDOT Sunset bill also came to be known as the “toll bill” because the House added several toll-related amendments, including one known as the Pickett Amendment, requiring any money TxDOT contributed to a toll project be paid back. This would add significantly to the debt of a project and create uncertainty about projects currently under development, perhaps stalling them altogether and therefore wasting the significant resources already put toward their development. However, thanks to a grandfather clause, our current joint projects with TxDOT will not be affected and can continue as planned. For example, MoPac South and Oak Hill Parkway, which began the environmental process prior to January 2014, will be allowed to continue toward completion, allowing the Mobility Authority to provide relief to some of the most congested roadways in the state. Other transportation-related amendments include prohibiting the conversion of current free and HOV lanes into toll lanes (or free lanes into frontage roads), a cap on administrative fees and criminal fines (to $48/year and $250/year respectively), and a removal of some specific tolls in the El Paso area. Effective 9/1/2017.

This bill more than any other transportation bill underscored how easy it is to confuse transportation agency roles, where funding goes, and how much is necessary to keep the region moving and keep our quality-of-life meter high. We’ll delve more into this topic in our next blog.

HB 100 – authorizing state regulation of transportation network companies (ride-hailing/ridesharing e.g. Uber, Lyft). Governor Abbott did not waste much time signing this bill, doing so prior to the session’s end. HB 100 obliterates local ride-hailing ordinances such as those passed in Austin that effectively removed these companies from the market. The legislation’s advocates, including the governor, claim that overriding local provisions will “provide regulatory certainty, creating a consistent framework across the state for popular ride-hailing companies, while still enforcing important customer safety standards.” These safety standards include annual criminal background checks on drivers, but no fingerprinting requirement. Effective immediately.

And since we at the Mobility Authority continuously have our eye on the future of transportation, we were keenly interested in this legislation: SB 2205 – regulating autonomous or self-driving and all other automated vehicles. Texas didn’t prohibit autonomous vehicles before – they’ve been tested in various locations since 2015 – but now regulations specify that vehicles on highways must have the capability to comply with our traffic laws, and measure velocity, location, steering and braking. It also holds the manufacturer culpable for any broken laws and accidents, as long as the automated driving system wasn’t modified by another party. The legislation also mandates insurance as with any other cars. Effective 9/1/2017.

 

Other bills of interest to transportation that were also signed into or became law include:

SB 128, requires information be given to individuals applying for a CDL (commercial driver’s license) on how to recognize and prevent human trafficking. The information will also be included in education curriculum. Effective immediately.

SB 402, requires public transportation providers to provide notice to the disabled of their eligibility for other public transportation services. Effective 9/1/2017.

SB 693, related to three-point seat belts on school buses for schoolchildren. Effective 9/1/2017.

SB 848, allows family or “judicial designee” to teach driver education. In addition to parents, stepparents, grandparents or other legal guardians, it also includes any person who has been designated by those family members or a judge who meets specific age and experience criteria. Effective immediately.

Also related to driver education is SB 1051, requiring the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation to offer an online driver education course in American Sign Language. This requirement goes into effect on September 1; and HB 1372, requiring information on child passenger safety seats to be part of driver education courses. This requirement also goes into effect September 1, 2017, “and according to its terms.”

SB 869, easing the transfer of vehicle ownership to a designated beneficiary after death. Effective 9/1/2017.

SB 975, SB 977, both related to high-speed rail – a long-standing topic in our region that typically musters a lot of opinions. The first bill, 975, establishes security requirements, and the second prohibits the legislature from appropriating state funds to pay for high-speed rail.

SB 1062 requires the DMV to accept electronic signatures for motor vehicle title documents. However, this will not go into effect until January 1, 2018. And HB 1345 says our driver’s licenses no longer have to be in color, effective September 1.

SB 1187, relates to the surcharge for no insurance under the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), requiring that a citation for driving without insurance confirms that the officer wasn’t able to verify financial information, and prohibiting DPS from assessing the DRP surcharge for the offense if the driver can provide proof that such insurance existed at the time of the offense. Effective immediately.

And finally, HB 3101 allows alcoholic beverage sales on passenger buses. But don’t get too excited; the bus specifications are very particular, depending on number of seats, galley area, and whether a trained attendant (not the driver) is present. The law is effective immediately — just in time for summer holiday trips.

There were also several bills passed and signed that related to the use of drones, golf carts, ATVs and similar vehicles on our streets and roads, as well as liability limits for “good Samaritans” helping a person in a vehicle, including first responders. You will also soon be able to get childhood cancer awareness plates. Get details about all of our new transportation laws here.

 

Notable failed legislation

HB 2861 – authorizing 18 more tollways through public-private partnerships. This bill failed in the House and will change the impact of public-private partnerships in transportation. SH 130 came to be through public-private partnerships, with different segments built using different models. The P3 delivery system can be complex, and sometimes muddy, but in the case of SH 130, Central Texas toll and tax payers never lost money. I will address this topic in more detail in the next blog about transportation funding and its complexity.

SB 1588 to eliminate our annual vehicle safety inspections died in the House after clearing the Senate; we’ll be watching to see if this comes back during the special session.

HB 2068 would have, for the most part, killed key provisions of the Drivers Responsibility Program in the wake of claims that many of the provisions cause particular hardship to low-income Texans.

So there you have it. As I’ve mentioned throughout, stay tuned for my next blog as I present a more in-depth look at our transportation goals, and a realistic look at what it takes to meet them.

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