Sunday, May 22, 2005

Senate and House to hold conference committee on "cleanup" transportation bill.

Senate tweaks rules for toll roads

Transportation plan calls for public vote before money could be collected on existing roadways

Mike Ward, Staff
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

The Senate unanimously approved the legislative session's major transportation plan Saturday after dropping an amendment that critics feared could have added more than $1 billion to its cost.

Late Friday, the Senate added the amendment that would have required the state to pay for relocating utilities along the routes of toll roads.

Texas Department of Transportation officials were concerned that the amendment by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, might apply retroactively to costs previously borne by utility companies.

After overnight negotiations, Wentworth withdrew his amendment.

The Senate version of House Bill 2702 would limit commercial investment in a proposed Texas turnpike network and would require public approval before a free road could become a toll road. The House-passed version contains no such provision.

An amendment added Saturday by Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, would prohibit billboards along Texas 130 in Travis County.

Because the Senate-passed measure contains different wording and provisions than the version approved earlier by the House, the legislation now goes to a conference committee to resolve the differences.

The Senate version:

* Would require a public vote for all conversions of existing roads to toll roads.

* Would remove the ability of the state to purchase land on the Trans -Texas Corridor and use it for a garage, store, restaurant or hotel. The House version would continue to allow such uses.

* Would require that gas stations and convenience stores on the Trans -Texas Corridor be in the median, not outside the lanes, and be no closer than five miles from regular entrances or exits.

* Would require state or local governments to regulate toll rates, rather than granting that authority to private toll road concessionaires. The conference committee probably will be led by Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, and Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, the sponsors of the House and Senate versions.

Both measures clean up House Bill 3588, the 300-plus-page legislation from 2003 that granted the state and regional mobility authorities a wide range of powers to create toll roads.

Also included in the Senate version is an amendment added late Friday that could send more auto burglars to prison.

It would allow them to be charged with a felony on their second offense. The cost of that change could run $4 million a year, earlier estimates indicate.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, who has opposed such efforts throughout the legislative session to help limit prison crowding and bolster the use of probation and community justice programs, said he intends to get the auto burglary amendment stripped from the measure when it gets into negotiations with the House.

"It shouldn't be on there. It's not germane," Whitmire said. "It needs to go."; 476-3640

Additional material by staff writer Ben Wear

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