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Lawmakers resume efforts to provide Texans with toll road relief

Amid debate on a routine measure designed to keep the state's transportation agency in business, House lawmakers on Tuesday renewed their efforts to curb the growing number of toll lanes in the state.

State Reps Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, and Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, negotiate with House members with amendments to SB 312, the Texas Dept. of Transportation sunset bill on May 16, 2017.  Pickett is a member of the House transportation committee and Gonzales is overseeing sunset legislation. 

*Correction appended.

House lawmakers on Tuesday renewed their efforts to curb the growing number of toll lanes in the state — and to limit what happens to drivers who don’t pay fees for using such roads.

They did it while considering Senate Bill 312, a routine measure designed to keep the Texas Department of Transportation in operation for the next 12 years. They also added to the bill a new requirement that TxDOT contractors and subcontractors screen for undocumented workers.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, successfully got House lawmakers to prohibit TxDOT from turning carpool lanes opened before 2005 into toll lanes. Regional planners, especially in the Dallas area, have turned carpool lanes into toll lanes for years as a way to relieve congestion and raise more money for highway maintenance and renovation. He also got them to add language requiring toll agencies or other governmental entities to repay TxDOT any funds the state puts toward the upfront costs of a project with toll lanes.

And state Rep. Ina Minjarez got overwhelming support from her colleagues for an amendment decriminalizing toll violations. Her amendment also lowered civil fines levied against Texans who don’t quickly pay toll bills.

"We shouldn’t be putting people in jail simply because of their inability to pay,” the San Antonio Democrat said from the House floor.

Lawmakers also amended the bill to require contractors and subcontractors that do business with the agency to ensure they’re enrolled in the federal electronic employment verification program known as E-Verify, which screens for undocumented workers.

The measure by state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, originally filed would have barred contractors in violation from qualifying for state contracts for five years. But state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, amended the Rinaldi measure to eliminate the penalty after arguing it was too punitive.

The bill passed easily; it faces a final vote in the House on Wednesday before it heads back to the Senate. (Update, May 17: The House gave the bill final approval Wednesday, sending the measure back to the Senate.) 

On Tuesday, the amenders faced a couple of detractors. 

State Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, said toll violations are misdemeanor crimes meant to keep scofflaws from ignoring bills that most other Texans must pay. He said a man from his district drove for years without ever paying for tolls others were charged.

“What is our leverage now on that guy?” Gonzales asked.

Earlier this legislative session, Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, authored House Bill 2861, which would have permitted several toll road projects statewide by letting TxDOT enter into special development agreements to fast-track highway construction.

Amid a statewide and bipartisan pushback against toll roads, the lower chamber voted that bill down this month

Though some had anticipated Tuesday's debate to include amendments on a high-speed rail project between Dallas and Houston, none came up.

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Julián Aguilar contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote from Larry Gonzales to another legislator, Larry Phillips.

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State government Transportation 85th Legislative Session Texas Department Of Transportation Texas Legislature