Late Summer Legislative Hearings Tackle Tolls, Rideshare Regulation, Autonomous Vehicles

The dog days of summer at the end of August aren’t typically known for the level of activity in state capitals. But a couple of legislative hearings held this week in Texas and Michigan could have fairly significant implications for the future of transportation not just in those states but around the country.

Texas Committee Considers Toll Elimination, Rideshare Regulation

The Texas House Transportation Committee met Tuesday to consider two hot button transportation issues: how much the Lone Star State would have to shell out to eliminate toll roads and how the state should regulate rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft.

Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director James Bass told the committee it would cost around $24 billion to immediately pay off every publicly operated toll road in the state. TxDOT makes that estimate in the draft of a report ordered by the legislature in 2015 as part of House Bill 2612.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett told KVUE-TV this week that TxDOT should end toll roads where it can, and be stricter when it comes to using public money for toll projects. 

TxDOT oversees about 230 miles of the roughly 700 miles of toll roads in the state and 150 more miles of tollway are currently under construction, mostly in the Houston, Dallas and Austin areas, according to The Houston Chronicle.

Pickett said while the state is unlikely to be able to absorb the huge cost of removing all tolls in the near term, some tolls could be removed sooner, if there is a way to commit the funds.

But even removing tolls on just a few major roads could prove costly. Bass estimated that eliminating tolls on Houston’s 54-mile-long Grand Parkway would cost an estimated $3.6 billion, about $400 million more than officials borrowed to develop and build the project in the first place.

Bass also explained that there would likely be other long-term repercussions from the action of ending tolls.

“In order to build those toll roads we borrowed money from investors, so if the State of Texas were to say ‘we are not going to pay you, we are stopping the tolls, if and when the State of Texas needed to borrow money in the future, those investors likely wouldn’t be interested in loaning money,” he said, according to Texas Public Radio.

Some legislators at the hearing defended toll roads for their ability to improve travel times and relieve traffic gridlock.

And the Chronicle reported that Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, told some of his colleagues recently: "What I'm concerned about is losing the tools. The No. 1 priority I've got is that we don't lose these tools because there is a growing anti-toll sentiment out there without knowing the facts. If people know the facts and then they still don't want it, that's fine. I want to make sure they make a decision based upon the facts."

Lawmakers say they plan to study the TxDOT report and use it to inform potential legislation for consideration during the 2017 session in Austin.

Also on the agenda at Tuesday’s hearing was another bill likely to be considered next year that would regulate rideshare companies (also known as transportation network companies or TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. The effort to move forward with statewide legislation follows in the wake of the city of Austin’s high-profile battle with the companies earlier this year over a city ordinance requiring prospective drivers to undergo fingerprint background checks.

In May, Austin voters rejected Proposition 1, an Uber and Lyft-supported measure that would have axed the city’s existing ordinance and replaced it with one that would prohibit the fingerprint checks, repeal a requirement that rideshare vehicles be identifiable with a distinctive emblem and repeal a prohibition against loading and unloading passengers in a travel lane.

Uber and Lyft followed through on a threat to cease operations in Austin if the vote didn’t go their way and The Texas Tribune reported in June that the absence of the big players in Austin has resulted in the proliferation of smaller startup TNCs.

If approved by the legislature, a statewide ordinance would likely have the effect of overriding Austin’s existing ordinance and probably would not include a state fingerprint requirement. Researchers from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute testified Tuesday that of the 30 states that require background checks, none require fingerprints for drivers, KVUE reported.

In their report to lawmakers, the researchers note that “TNCs have strongly opposed fingerprint-based background checks on the grounds that the company screening processes in place are adequate, if not superior. Uber halted operations in Kansas after a bill passed that required a background check by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. This bill was vetoed by the governor and replaced by a new bill, which has since become law, that allows Uber to conduct background checks and face civil lawsuits if they hire ineligible drivers. Uber supported the compromise bill and resumed operations in Kansas within minutes of its signing.”

I also wrote about the issue of background checks in a blog post earlier this year.

Michigan Senate Committee Approves Autonomous Vehicle Bills

In Michigan Wednesday, the Senate Economic Development and International Investment Committee met to consider four bills (SB 995, 996, 997 and 998) aimed at accelerating autonomous vehicle projects in the state. Lawmakers approved the legislative package, which allows testing of the vehicles on 122 miles of roads and paves the way for the American Center for Mobility, a second testing and research facility at an old airport in Ypsilanti (the first facility, known as Mcity, opened last year in Ann Arbor). If passed by the full Senate and House and signed by the Governor, the package would update the state’s 2013 autonomous vehicle law.

“The law that we drafted in 2013 was just to allow testing,” said one of the sponsors of the bills Sen. Mike Kowall, according to the Detroit Free Press. “This opens everything—as long as you have everything working and you pass all the standards that we set forward.”

Michigan officials see the birthplace of the U.S. auto industry in direct competition with states like Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania in trying to position themselves as hubs for autonomous vehicle R&D.

Automakers, rideshare providers and technology companies have all been making news this summer in the autonomous vehicle space. The CEO of Ford Mark Fields announced recently the company will mass produce driverless cars and have a fleet of autonomous taxis in operation by 2021. Not to be outdone, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said his company would have a fleet of (human-supervised) self-driving Volvos deployed on the streets of Pittsburgh this year.  

As I’ve noted previously, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators are expected to weigh in this year with long-awaited model state policy for autonomous vehicles (the NHTSA guidance is now expected this month and the AAMVA supporting materials by the end of 2016). But it’s clear that developments in the industry and in state capitals are now moving so quickly, the federal policies could already seem dated by the time they hit the streets.

In case you missed it, our CSG eCademy Webcast (presented in partnership with the Griffith Insurance Education Foundation) on the insurance and public policy considerations ahead for autonomous vehicles is now archived in the CSG Knowledge Center. Look for our next webinar on 2016 developments in rideshare in October. And look for a Capitol Research brief on current state laws on autonomous vehicles later this month.

Transportation for America’s Capital Ideas II

Emerging technologies bringing rapid changes to states and communities will be just one of the many topics discussed during Capital Ideas II, a two-day conference the organization Transportation for America will host in Sacramento November 16-17. CSG is pleased to be a promotional partner for the event, which will offer attendees a highly interactive curriculum of model state legislation, campaign tactics, innovative policies and peer-to-peer collaboration designed to help them advance successful state transportation policy and funding proposals. Just in time to get a jump on the 2017 state legislative sessions, Capital Ideas II (no affiliation with CSG’s magazine Capitol Ideas) will also examine how state departments of transportation are instituting reforms and how California and other states are leading the way in policy innovation. The latest tentative agenda for the conference is available on the T4America website. Registration is available here. For an idea of what the first Capital Ideas was like in 2014, you can read my coverage of the event here, here and here