STATE AFFAIRS/BORDER AFFAIRS JOINT HEARING DRAWS LARGE CROWD
LAREDO - The Senate Committee on State Affairs and the Special Committee on Border Affairs held a joint meeting on Tuesday, January 11, 2000 at the Texas A&M International University in the Bob Bullock Hall.
State Affairs Committee members include Senators Florence Shapiro of Plano serving as chair, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso serving as vice-chair, Eddie B. Lucio, Jr. of Brownsville, David Cain of Dallas, Drew Nixon of Carthage, J.E. "Buster" Brown of Lake Jackson, David Bernsen of Beaumont, Tom Haywood of Wichita Falls, and Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio.
The Special Committee on Border Affairs members include Senators Lucio serving as chair, David Sibley of Waco serving as vice-chair, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Teel Bivins of Amarillo, Judith Zaffirini of Laredo, and Carlos F. Truan of Corpus Christi.
The first charge issued by Lt. Governor Rick Perry to the Senate Committee on State Affairs is to evaluate the state's intermodel transportation planning efforts, with an emphasis on North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) related trade corridors, and their impact on both metropolitan and rural areas of the state. The committee is to address all modes of transportation including highways, farm-to-market roads, turnpikes, mass transit, aviation, railroads, and water traffic. The committee is to determine whether the state is maximizing federal funding levels, and to evaluate alternative and innovative methods of transportation funding and develop recommendations for their use. The committee is directed to coordinate study of this issue with the Special Committee on Border Affairs, with the final preparation of the report to be the responsibility of the State Affairs Committee.
Chairs Shapiro and Lucio opened the hearing thanking Laredo Mayor Elizabeth G. Flores and Senator Zaffirini for hosting the event. Shapiro discussed how transportation is one of the most important issues in Texas today, and that the Laredo area will be highly affected.
Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini then addressed the group, noting that they were meeting in Bob Bullock Hall and traveled on Bob Bullock Loop to arrive at the university as evidence of the late Lt. Governor's influence on the community. Zaffirini called attention to students who attended the hearing, recognizing them as future leaders. Zaffirini stated that the answers to transportation issues are not "'pothole by pothole' solutions; if our problems are interrelated, our solutions will be interrelated."
Mayor Flores welcomed the committee with some local facts. Laredo is the largest city in Webb County with a population of 200,000. Nuevo Laredo's population is estimated at 600,000. Laredo is the largest inland port in the country. It contributes $23 million to GAT, NAFTA, and international trade. And, Laredo has assumed the costs of many of these programs.
Dr. J. Charles Jennett, President, Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) discussed the projected growth of TAMIU enrollment and the campus itself, and invited the members to tour the school to see what TAMIU has done for the community.
Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Chair David Laney then testified. TxDOT has given Laredo grants to aid the transportation issue. Laney testified that there are concerns relating to air quality issues, particularly diesel fuel. Border inspection is also a major concern.
Shapleigh compared Laredo to Mississippi in regards to trade. Lucio requested legislative intent to be carried out by the boards and commissions, particularly by TxDOT. The commission has given permission to hire any additional employees that are needed for the border. Truan asked if Federal funds were being utilized. The information is needed before an increase in the gasoline tax is requested. Laney responded by saying that he is not, nor is the commission, pushing for a tax increase. But, they would like additional funding.
Mr. Frederick Werner, representing the Federal Highway Administration, testified on various funding programs available to assist in transportation projects. This includes the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) which provides Federal funding for surface transportation projects for Federal Fiscal Years 1998 through 2003. There has been $218 billion in authorized funding nationwide. Funds are provided for highways, highway safety, and transit. There is approximately $2 billion allocated annually for highway projects in Texas. TEA-21 established new Federal credit programs. These credit programs are designed to use credit, instead of grants, to finance projects of national significance. TEA-21 also continues a financing mechanism designed to use future Federal aid to pay debt service on bonds issued for major projects.
Rafael Garcia, Bridge Director for the City of Laredo, testified about issues surrounding the international bridges in Laredo. Rick Maldonado, Chair of Government Affairs, Port of Corpus Christi, testified for the Texas Port Association (TPA). TPA consists of 13 port authorities, and contributes more than $87 billion to the state economy, with 17% of the nation's port trade coming from Texas.
Testifying on the railroad system was Jerry Martin, Rail Division Director, Texas Railroad Commission (TRC); Stacie Fowler, Intergovernmental Affairs Division Director, TRC; TxDOT Commissioner Robert Nichols; John Helsey, President Rail District Advisors, Inc.; Steve Roop, Director of TTI Rail Research Center; Chris Adenen, President and CEO, Texas-Mexican Railway. Also testifying was Al Cisneros, Terminal Operations Manager, Union Pacific Railroad.
Shapleigh asked why European countries use rail systems more than the United States. Nichols responded that in Europe most of the rail systems are owned by governments and leased to private industries. In the United States the rail system is privately owned. Also, in Europe, gasoline is very expensive--$3 or $4 per gallon. In the US, gasoline, on average, is $1.35 per gallon.
Shapleigh then asked the panel to report on the probability of a rail system as a viable transportation alternative. The panel will respond at a later hearing. The construction cost to build a railroad is approximately $1.4 million per mile. This figure does not include right of way purchases.
Extensive invited testimony continued throughout the day. Individuals from the Texas Turnpike Authority, Camino Columbia Toll Road, Inc., NAFTA Information Center, and the Texas Department of Public Transportation all gave related testimony.
Public testimony began with Kate McVeigh, a small business owner and newspaper reporter from Zapata County. McVeigh stated that she wanted to generate more attention for border issues, specifically the small border towns. She asked the committee not to disregard small towns when planning roadways. McVeigh proposed widening Highway 16 or constructing bridges in smaller communities, versus a fifth bridge in Laredo, in order to encourage economic development in under populated locations.
The committee recessed subject to call of the chair, with its next meeting to be announced at a later time and date. The committee will report its findings in the form of a report on September 1, 2000.