Published 8:53 am Monday, April 10, 2017

A controversial program that fines Texas drivers would face major reforms or even total elimination under two bills considered at Wednesday’s Senate Transportation Committee. The Driver Responsibility Program was created in 2003 as a way to cover part of a budget shortfall that year, but critics say it’s putting a massive financial burden on Texas drivers. The program assigns “points” to drivers based on the number of traffic violations, which stay with the driver for two to three years, depending on the severity of the offense. These points accumulate with additional violations and once a person has six points, they have to pay a yearly $100 surcharge, and $25 more for every point above that.   It also assesses surcharges upon conviction of some offenses, like an extra $250 fine in the case of a conviction for driving without insurance. “Paying these surcharges along with the litany of other costs can become an impossible task,” said Edgewood Senator Bob Hall, who cited figures stating that 1.2 million Texans have had their license suspended because they can’t pay the program’s fines.

Though the project is widely derided by the public and elected officials, it provides millions of dollars to support trauma care in the state, $55 million in 2015 alone.   The committee considered a proposal to eliminate it entirely, SB 90 by Hall, who says the state needs to find a better way to pay for trauma care. “There is never a right reason to do the wrong thing,” he said. “Let’s end this program and find a sustainable funding stream for trauma care elsewhere.” Senator Kirk Watson offered a compromise bill, SB 266. His bill would cut in half the fines associated with the program and require that all the revenue earned from the program go into trauma care. “It’s just an effort to come to some sort of balance on a bad program,” he said. Both bills remain pending.

Also Wednesday, the Transportation Committee heard and passed a series of bills that would put restrictions on a high speed rail project being proposed in the state. A private company is currently planning a privately-funded high speed rail route between Dallas and Houston, but members representing areas in the planned route have serious concerns about the project. They point to a similar project in California they say has vastly overrun projected costs and worry that the state will be on the hook if the project fails. “Many of my constituents are concerned that if the private entity fails in its ambitious undertaking, taxpayers would be left with an incomplete or failed high speed rail project potentially requiring an infusion of state dollars to be either complete the project or return the land to its original condition,” said Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner, whose Senate District 5 spans part of the possible high speed rail route.

Schwertner offered a suite of bills intended to protect taxpayers from supporting or bailing out the project should it fail.   One, SB 977, prohibits the use of state funds to support the project other than as required under current law. Another, SB 979, would require any land taken through eminent domain for high speed rail be used for high speed rail or offered back to the land owner. A third, SB 980, would say that if the state does have to bail out the project, then the state becomes the primary creditor and must be paid back before anyone else.

Senator Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham proposed a bill, SB 981, to require the project to be usable by multiple types of train engine. She says the current proposal will only work with one kind of train and one kind of rail, and would create a monopoly for the operator.   Finally, Senator Brian Birdwell put forward a bill that would require a company operating a high speed rail project to ensure a high level of safety and security for passengers and communities on the route and reimburse communities for the use of police officers for any security purposes.

The Senate will reconvene Thursday, April 6 at 10 am.