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Uber, Tesla, Google Messed with Texas Transportation in 2015

Silicon Valley heavyweights like Uber, Tesla and Google challenged the transportation status quo this year, along with a private firm that is hoping to build the country’s fastest high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston.

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Most Texans got around this year the same way they have for decades: driving gas-guzzling cars along the state’s highways, often in traffic. But 2015 was also the year where Silicon Valley heavyweights like Uber, Tesla and Google challenged the status quo, and a private firm’s plan to build the country’s fastest high-speed rail line in Texas drew the passionate attention of the state Legislature.

Here are the year’s top six Texas transportation stories:

1. Uber vs. Texas cities

Vehicle-for-hire apps like Uber and Lyft expanded their customer base in Texas in 2015 but faced major pushback in their efforts to avoid regulations similar to those reserved for traditional taxi drivers. Houston currently has one of the country’s strongest “Uber ordinances,” which prompted Lyft to leave that market. Earlier this month, both Uber and Lyft strongly implied that they would pull out of Austin if forced to undergo stricter regulations. The city council approved a tougher ordinance anyway. The future is murky for the two companies in other Texas cities, largely over whether Uber and Lyft drivers should have to submit to fingerprint-based background checks.

2. Auto dealers, 2. Tesla, 0.

After failing two years earlier, high-end electric car maker Tesla Motors tried again in 2015 to convince Texas lawmakers to let it sidestep state laws requiring that cars be sold through middleman dealers. Despite a beefed-up lobbying effort, Tesla actually lost ground, with Gov. Greg Abbott firmly standing with traditional auto dealers, a reversal of the position offered by Abbott’s predecessor, Rick Perry.

3. Google picks Austin as next self-driving playground

The technology giant spent the first half of the year blocking Texas lawmakers’ efforts to create some statewide oversight of self-driving vehicle testing. Then in July, Google expanded testing of its autonomous software beyond California to Texas. As of November, Google had 12 vehicles driving themselves around parts of north Austin, typically with a “test driver” behind the wheel and another Google employee in the passenger seat collecting data.

4. High-speed rail survives the session

Opponents of Texas Central Partners' plan to run Japanese bullet trains between Dallas and Houston got their act together in 2015, and state lawmakers proposed measures to effectively kill the project. The leading proposal to prevent the trains ultimately died, but Texas Central still faces significant roadblocks to reaching its goal of transporting Texans on the country’s fastest train line by 2021.

5: New transportation funding

For the second year in a row, Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a change to the state’s Constitution aimed at boosting funding for the construction and maintenance of roads, as long as they’re not toll roads. The approval of Proposition 7 is expected to boost funding by billions of dollars starting in 2017

6: Supreme Court: Texas can ban Confederate license plates

Six years after the Sons of Confederate Veterans applied for a specialty license plate bearing a flag of the Confederate States of America, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling backing Texas’ right to deny the application. A loss at the country’s highest court could have put an end to the state’s entire specialty license plate program, as officials worried they’d be forced to accept plate designs featuring racial slurs and other offensive images.

Uber, Lyft, Google and Tesla are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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