Monday, May 30, 2005

House Bill 2702 approved by House

Turnpike system changes headed into home stretch

May 30, 2005

Ben Wear,Staff
Austin American-Statesman Copyright 2004

The torturous path to passage of the session's main transportation effort appeared to be nearing an end Sunday as the Senate approved its 160-plus pages of toll road and Trans -Texas Corridor changes.

And just before midnight, the House approved the compromise version of House Bill 2702 May 30, 2005 , crafted by a House-Senate conference committee. By rule, the House had to make a decision by midnight.

The state's headlong rush to toll roads will see new limits in response to concerns raised over the past two years, but also new license.

The legislation ensures access from most significant crossroads to the proposed Trans -Texas Corridor system of intrastate turnpikes, limits commercial facilities in the corridor turnpikes to gas stations and convenience stories, and requires public elections before a free road can be converted to a toll road.

But it also dramatically raises the ceiling for how much gas tax money the state can use on toll roads, essentially allowing all of the allocation for metropolitan areas to go to turnpikes. For toll roads other than those in the Trans -Texas Corridor , it specifically allows the state to acquire private land and then build hotels, restaurants and other commercial facilities on that land.

HB 2702, requires private operators of state-owned toll roads to get approval of their "methodology" for setting toll rates. But it does not require the Texas Transportation Commission to approve the actual rates.

"In other states, having the commission come back every time there needs to be a change in toll rates has been problematic," said state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, the House sponsor of the legislation. "Because of that history, the bond market has been very wary of getting involved in a project where a political body has to set every rate."

The measure was resurrected Sunday after being declared dead Saturday evening.

Krusee, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, and his counterpart on the Senate's transportation panel, Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, seemingly had reached an impasse on differences between versions of the legislation passed in the House and Senate.

Angry that the Senate seemed to be holding up the measure over what he considered picayune items, Krusee ordered a version printed late Saturday afternoon that had the approval of House conferees alone.

The plan, Staples said, "was on the dark side of the moon for more than four hours."

What emerged on the other side, according to Staples, "violated the principles that we had all agreed upon," including the absence of property rights protections for landowners along the Trans -Texas Corridor that had been approved in the House.

Staples and his staff worked into the night red-penciling the document, and Krusee agreed to the final version Sunday morning.

But then Krusee and Staples, because the final bill measure did not meet a Saturday midnight deadline, had to persuade two-thirds of their colleagues to override rules to allow the bill to come up for a final vote in each chamber.; 445-3698


Toll road legislation

The version of House Bill 2702, the main transportation legislation of the session, that the Senate and House considered Sunday contained these provisions:

Toll roads

* Requires public elections for converting a free road to a toll road.

* Stipulates that conversion is required if a road was not designated a toll road at the time a construction contract was awarded and, post-construction, there will not be at least as many non-tolled lanes as before.

* Allows the state to invest as much as $2 billion a year in gas tax money on toll roads.

* Requires private toll road operators hired by the state to get the Texas Transportation Commission's OK on its 'methodology' for setting or raising tolls but does not require such approval for the actual toll rates.

* Allows states to acquire private land on toll road right of way for a 'gas station, garage, store, hotel, restaurant, or other commercial facility.'

* Prohibits the state from requiring a local community to build toll roads to receive money from the Texas Mobility Fund.

Trans -Texas Corridor

* Limits commercial facilities on corridor to gas stations and convenience stores in the median of the highway, at least 10 miles from exits or entrances.

* Allows compensation to rural land owners if a road project prevents 'reasonable access' to a portion of the owner's land. In other areas, such land would have to be inaccessible to trigger compensation.

* Prohibits pumping groundwater from corridor right of way to use outside the corridor land.


* Allows Capital Metro to hold a referendum on commuter rail expansion in May or August. Current law allows such elections only in November of even-numbered years.

* Prohibits billboards on Texas 130.

* Allows state to award contracts to private companies to design, build and operate railroad facilities.

* Transfers all regulatory authority over railroads from the Texas Railroad Commission to the Texas Department of Transportation.

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