Issues: Transportation

Driver Responsibility Program reform passes Texas Senate

(Austin, TX) // Today, the Texas Senate passed SB 93, legislation to reform and improve the broken Driver Responsibility Program (DRP). The bill now moves to the House for consideration. Specifically, the bill will prevent drivers licenses from being suspended as a result of failure to pay a DRP surcharge. Since 2003, over 2 million licenses have been suspended, and currently more than 1.2 million licenses are suspended due to the program.

“It’s time to give hardworking Texas families relief from this broken double jeopardy program that is doing more harm than good,” said Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), author of SB 93. “I hope that by ending the threat of license suspension we can dismantle this program piece by piece and return some sanity to how we fund trauma care in our state.”

Senator Ellis continued: “The Senate’s vote today is a testament to the fact that the end of the DRP as we know it is near. The program has harmed millions of families, preventing hardworking Texans from driving to work or taking their children to school.”

“I am glad to see the legislature recognizing when things do not work out the way they were intended and having a willingness to rectify it,” said Senator Bob Hall (R-Edgewood). “This is a good first step in that direction.”

“The Driver Responsibility Program has created more problems than it has solved,” said Senator Don Huffines (R-Dallas). “Instead of helping people or increasing safety, punitive DRP fees are a heavy burden on low and middle income Texans. It’s past time to eliminate this hurtful and unnecessary program, which is a modern day debtor’s prison.”

Former Representative Mike Krusee, who passed the bill that created the DRP, recently spoke out in a letter to Senator Ellis and called for full repeal of the program. In part, the letter reads:

 I believe the numerous problems with the DRP and its detrimental impact on millions of Texans fair outweigh any benefits. It is past time to repeal it. The program was never intended to cause as much harm as it has to Texas families.

The DRP was created in 2003 to help fill a budget shortfall and requires drivers convicted of certain traffic offenses to pay annual surcharges to maintain their drivers’ licenses. If a person fails to pay the surcharge, which is assessed on top of court fines and criminal penalties, it results in an automatic license suspension.

Since 2003, it’s clear that the DRP has created more problems than it has solved. The program has generated far less revenue than anticipated, has not improved public safety, and has increased financial hardships for low-income families. This program has created backlogs in our courts and passed on undue costs to our counties. What’s worse, the DRP has led to more uninsured and unlicensed drivers on the road.

The bill passed by the Senate today repeals language in the Transportation Code that provides for the suspension of a driver’s license for failure to pay a surcharge.

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Driver Responsibility Program reform moves out of Senate committee

(Austin, TX) // Yesterday, the Texas Senate Committee on Transportation passed SB 93 by an 8 to 0 vote, legislation to reform and improve the broken Driver Responsibility Program (DRP). Specifically, the committee substitute will prevent drivers licenses from being suspended as a result of failure to pay a DRP surcharge. Since 2003, over 2 million licenses have been suspended, and currently more than 1.2 million licenses are suspended due to the program.

“It’s time to give hardworking Texas families relief from this broken double jeopardy program that is doing more harm than good,” said Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), author of SB 93. “I want to thank all of the senators, but especially Senators Bob Hall and Don Huffines for their determination and assistance in getting the bill out of committee.”

Senator Ellis continued: “I fully recognize how late it is in session, and passing this bill will clearly be an uphill climb. But I will push to get the bill through the Senate so that we can get a record vote and create momentum moving forward.”

“I am glad to see the legislature recognizing when things do not work out the way they were intended and having a willingness to rectify it,” said Senator Bob Hall (R-Edgewood). “This is a good first step in that direction.”

“The Driver Responsibility Program has created more problems than it has solved,” said Senator Don Huffines (R-Dallas). “Instead of helping people or increasing safety, punitive DRP fees are a heavy burden on low and middle income Texans. It’s past time to eliminate this hurtful and unnecessary program, which is a modern day debtor’s prison.”

The DRP was created in 2003 to help fill a budget shortfall and requires drivers convicted of certain traffic offenses to pay annual surcharges to maintain their drivers’ licenses. If a person fails to pay the surcharge, which is assessed on top of court fines and criminal penalties, it results in an automatic license suspension.

Since 2003, it’s clear that the DRP has created more problems than it has solved. The program has generated far less revenue than anticipated, has not improved public safety, and has increased financial hardships for low-income families. This program has created backlogs in our courts and passed on undue costs to our counties. What’s worse, the DRP has led to more uninsured and unlicensed drivers on the road.

The committee substitute passed yesterday by the Transportation Committee strikes the majority of the language in the original bill and replaces it with a repeal of Section 708.152 of the Transportation Code, which deals with license suspension for failure to pay.

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Sen. Ellis on his vote against SB 5 and SJR 5

“Infrastructure investment is key to creating good paying jobs and ensuring Texas remains competitive in the 21st century economy,” said Senator Ellis. “But so is investing in our human infrastructure, through quality educational opportunities and better health care for Texas families. By constitutionally dedicating this funding, we’re creating a new multi-billion dollar hole that’s going to be difficult to fill during years when the budget is tight. So I cannot in good conscience support legislation that will restrict the ability of future legislatures to meet our state’s needs.”

“The voters sent us here to make hard decisions including allocating money to address our state’s needs. If transportation is truly a priority for this legislature, then it should appropriate funding to do so. Just like any other agency which goes through the budgeting process, TxDOT should have to make its case each session regarding its funding needs, and it should be accountable for how those dollars are spent.”

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Utility paths – After years of hurdles, plans begin

EDITORIAL

It can be hard to get things done in politics, so we love to see it when a worthy plan comes together – especially when that plan involves bicycle paths.

Houston is already well on the way to upgrading our bayous into usable green space, but Mayor Annise Parker on Friday announced the next target for transformation – utility rights-of-way.

Parker joined representatives from environmental groups and CenterPoint Energy to announce that the utility company was kicking off the plan to transform grassy stretches of power lines into an extensive system of trails that will connect with the bayous – complete with a $1.5 million donation to get things started. That’s a hefty gift from a company that didn’t have to play ball in the first place, and an addition to Houston’s history of corporate stewardship.

These rights-of-way have been a missing link in any plan to build a bicycle system that can actually function as a transportation network. The bayous may meander across our city, but they essentially only function as an east-west corridor. These utility stretches will be the north-south avenues that complete a grid for pedal power.

The plan required cooperation at the city level, in the state Legislature and in private office buildings. All deserve praise for making it happen, especially Republican state Rep. Jim Murphy and Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis, who worked to pass a bill that would indemnify CenterPoint against liability for negligence along the rights-of-way – similar to the standard held in 47 other states.

Despite our city’s size, it often feels like Houston has one of the weakest voices up in Austin. These two were able to cut through the usual chaos.

Progress is often slow, and it will be a while before Houston’s hike-and-bike network is complete. But after waiting to clear the legal hurdles, it seems like everything is finally on the right path.

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Roads need room for cyclists and pedestrians

By Rodney Ellis and Michael Payne

The Houston Chronicle’s recent articles on cycling fatalities highlight the heartbreaking fact that immediate work is needed to enable safe road access for all users. Houston has the unfortunate distinction of being among the cities with the highest cyclist and pedestrian fatality rates in the country.

As avid cyclists, we have certainly had our fair number of close calls, whether from drivers failing to yield to being forced to ride in dangerous streets without sidewalks or bicycle lanes to provide a safe passing distance. We’ve also had friends and colleagues killed and injured. So make no mistake: This is extremely personal to us. As we mourn the loss of these lives, we must work harder on engineering, policy and education at both the state and local level to prevent future tragedies.

We applaud the Houston Police Department and Harris County district attorney for their ongoing efforts in the Chelsea Norman hit-and-run fatality, as well as Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston City Council for passing a Complete Streets Plan and the Safe Passing Ordinance. But more must be done, and it is time to get serious about planning and building legitimate bicycle lanes.

The city of Houston urgently needs to update its Master Bicycle Plan, last done in 1996. This will establish the best and worst streets for cycling and give the Public Works Department a clear set of priorities for improved bike lane development. Channeling cyclists onto the safe routes will improve the experience for all road users. Many cities are learning and changing, and we, too, must address this problem more proactively.

Recent successes include the bond referendum supporting the Bayou Greenways initiative and the passage of House Bill 200 in the last legislative session, which supports the development of paths in utility corridors. These changes will help transform Houston through a system of trails and green space. However, without a well-thought-out network of bike lanes to move people into and away from these linear parks, we will be faced with more riders on streets designed only for automobiles. A master bicycle plan and proper bike lanes will be critical to providing a safe way for people in all neighborhoods to get to and from these paths and use their bicycles for transportation as well as recreation. While a white stripe on the road will not stop an impaired motorist, there is no question that meeting national standards for width or physical separations will decrease the probability of a car colliding with a cyclist.

In addition to a safe infrastructure, more public education on road safety and enforcement of traffic laws will help make certain that all road users are safe. Drivers can save lives by paying attention to the road and refraining from texting. They should also always give cyclists a wide pass, obey the speed limits and be vigilant at intersections.

Cyclists have a duty, too. They can help by making sure they are visible, planning their routes carefully and complying with all traffic laws. It is also important for families to model safe behaviors for their children when bicycling, such as wearing helmets and obeying traffic signs.

Livable communities are important to the improvement of Texans’ safety and health. We must begin planning and developing an inclusive infrastructure that accommodates motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Adding sidewalks and lanes for bicycles not only makes our roads safer, but also adds economic value to communities and improves the quality of life for residents. Street improvements encourage walking and cycling for health, mitigate traffic congestion for short trips, and help improve air quality.

At the state level, bipartisan legislation has been introduced in multiple legislative sessions to improve street design and operation and establish a safe passing distance around unprotected road users. Unfortunately, these bills have yet to become law. Although some Texas cities and communities have begun to embrace multimodal street transportation, the state should do more to lead efforts and guarantee that each community is uniquely suited to handle its respective mobility needs.

Over time, these engineering initiatives, policy changes and education efforts will reduce fatalities and injuries. Let’s all do our part individually as we work to ensure that all users can safely enjoy the road.

Ellis, a Democrat, represents Houston in the Texas Senate. Payne is executive director of BikeHouston.

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Speech to Executives and Sales Force of Gulf States Toyota

Good morning. It is great to be here.

I wanted to give you a short update on some of the big issues this session that impact and hopefully interest you.

Surplus?
By now you might have heard about an $8.8 billion budget “surplus”. Well, don’t get too excited. This “surplus” is pretty much already spent, covering bills we didn’t pay last session. the biggest chunk will go to paying our overdue $4.7 billion tab for Medicaid. Continue Reading »

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