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Texas Rail Bill Filed

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Senator John Carona

By Shelley Kofler, KERA News

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Dallas, TX – Will North Texas voters agree to higher taxes and fees in exchange for a regional rail system and roads? Area lawmakers believe they will. That's why they're backing legislation filed in Austin Monday. KERA's Shelley Kofler has details.

In downtown Irving riders waiting for the Trinity Railway Express line the platform. Last year alone ridership jumped 16-percent on the train trip linking Dallas and Fort Worth. Spurred by traffic gridlock and high gas prices, DART commuter rail use has risen, too. And DART plans to double its 45 miles of service within four years.

But that's just the beginning of what North Texas planners envision. They want to build a 215 mile commuter rail system that would connect twelve area counties. Planners are counting on the enthusiasm of local voters to pay for it.

Carona: The fact of the matter is if we don't have a good transportation system, a forward thinking transportation system then we won't have economic development in this region 25 years from today.

That's Dallas State Senator John Carona. He's filed legislation that would allow counties to seek voter approval for increasing their local fees and taxes. The new money would be used to build rail lines or roads. Carona's bill contains a smorgasbord of options including: an increase of up to 10-cents a gallon in the motor fuels tax; an increase of up to $250 for registering a vehicle from out of state; an added cost for renewing a driver's license.

At a press conference, surrounded by Democrats, Republicans, and officials from across the region Carona explained, no one pays more unless voters agree, and the money stays in North Texas.

Carona: The bill doesn't raise a single penny of tax or raise a single fee on its face. Doesn't force anybody to do anything. The bill will let the voters decide what kind of transportation system they want and how much they are willing to pay for it.

It may sound like an easy sell. Why wouldn't state lawmakers give citizens the right to increase their own taxes? A couple of reasons.

First, some lawmakers don't want to be associated with any tax hike. Second of all, legislators torpedoed this effort twice before when bills proposed paying for rail with an increase in the sales tax. Businesses killed that.

This time Carona has taken the unpopular sales tax hike off the table, and he's enlisted support from lawmakers in the Austin and San Antonio regions. Those areas would also be able to use this funding method.

Bob Cluck, mayor to the largest U.S. city without mass transit, is optimistic.

Cluck: I can summarize my feelings about this by saying I'm from Arlington, Texas. We don't have a bus we don't have access to trains and yet we have hundreds of thousands of people to visit us each year. This is an emergency issue for us

If the legislature gives the go ahead it would probably be another two years before voters would decide on new taxes and fees. El Centro student Christina Ramirez says she already depends on the train to get to class. She'd pay more.

Ramirez: I personally would because I think it would be nice to go places without having to drive there. I'm willing to help out

Another rail passenger, Mike Lubin would too.

Lubin: I know taxes have to go up for it to be possible so you would pay more, yeah.

But getting tax-averse lawmakers on board won't be as easy. That may be why area cities have hired Austin lobby firm Hillco to keep the bill on track.

Send E-mail to Shelley Kofler