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Amid Funding Shortfall, Three Counties Allowed to Raise Vehicle Fees

While Texas lawmakers this year failed to find the billions of dollars needed to address a transportation funding shortfall, Bexar, El Paso and Webb counties managed to win special approval to raise their vehicle registration fees.

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As Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Legislature shot down efforts this year to boost fees statewide for transportation, they also granted exceptions to three Texas counties.

Under two bills that passed with little debate, Bexar, El Paso and Webb counties were given the authority to raise their vehicle registration fees by $10, with the extra revenue going toward local transportation projects.

In the last month, county commissioner courts in each of the three counties have voted unanimously to take advantage of the offer. Drivers in those three counties will start paying the higher fee starting Jan. 1. The total cost of registration in the three counties will rise from around $65 to $75.

Lawmakers have been debating for most of the past decade whether to allow local communities to levy extra taxes or fees for local transportation projects. In 2009, North Texas officials led a concerted effort to pass a “local option” measure that would have allowed most of the state’s biggest urban counties to hold voter referendums to approve increases in driver’s license fees, the gasoline tax or vehicle registration fees. The effort faltered in the face of opposition from Perry and conservative activists.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who at one point in 2009 threatened to stage a filibuster to save the local-option plan, said Tuesday that the measures passed this year fall short.

"I support the efforts of counties to address transportation infrastructure needs; however, the piecemeal approach taken by these bills is less than ideal,” Carona said in a statement.

In 2011, Hidalgo and Cameron counties were the first to gain permission to raise registration fees by $10. This year, some local officials and lawmakers successfully argued that their counties deserved the same revenue-generating authority as the two border counties.

“We cannot keep up with the infrastructure demands that the international trade and now the Eagle Ford development imposes on us,” Webb County Judge Danny Valdez said at a hearing in March for House Bill 1198, authored by state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo. The version of the bill that passed authorized Webb and El Paso counties to raise vehicle registration fees.

At an April hearing for HB 1573, by state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, Bexar County Public Works Director Renee Green testified that the sizable portion of her county not in San Antonio is struggling to keep up with population growth.

“Right now, everything that we collect pretty much has to go to maintenance,” Green said

In Bexar County, the fee hike is expected to raise $12 million a year and will be used to jump-start various stalled road projects, officials said. El Paso officials predict $6.2 million a year in extra revenue. Webb County officials expect the fee increase will raise nearly $2 million a year.

Though lawmakers discussed requiring the fee hikes to be approved by each county’s voters, they opted to allow county commissioners to approve the increases as long as a local regional mobility authority administers the additional revenue and that it all goes to road and bridge projects. Webb County does not have a regional mobility authority but is in the process of establishing one to administer the new revenue.

Last month, during a third special session, lawmakers approved a measure that will ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment in 2014 that will boost the Texas Department of Transportation's funding by an estimated $1.2 billion a year, well short of the $4 billion to $5 billion the agency has said it needs to maintain current levels of congestion in a growing state.   

“In a state developing and growing as quickly as Texas is, a comprehensive solution is needed," Carona said.

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