Friday, May 06, 2005

Senate tries to "clean up" concerns about the Corridor

Trans-Texas Corridor plan generates both reform and revolt

by James A. Bernsen

The Lone Star Report
Volume 3, Issue 36
Copyright 2005

Two years ago, lawmakers completely rewrote state transportation law with passage of HB 3588. With controversy over toll roads boiling over, the issue is again moving to the forefront of the legislative agenda.

This week, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn threw some more diesel fuel on the fire with a rally against the Trans-Texas Corridor, toll roads, and Gov. Rick Perry .

And while a bill to freeze the corridor languishes in the House, legislation is moving forward in the Senate to clean up some of the concerns with the corridor project itself.

Strayhorn, in getting aboard the anti-toll road bandwagon, has found an issue that unites rural farmers and ranchers with Austin anti-toll activists and environmentalists. Speaking to a rally of about 300 sign-waving toll opponents, Strayhorn called the corridor “the largest land grab in Texas history.”

Strayhorn passionately outlined her opposition to the plan, citing concerns about toll conversion, property rights, and contracting by foreign companies.

“Say no to replacing freeways with tollways and say no to the European, foreign-run toll roads that will turn TxDOT into EuroDOT,” she said, to enthusiastic applause. “Gov. Perry and his Department of Transportation want to cram toll roads down Texans’ throats. He calls it Trans-Texas Corridor, we call it Trans-Texas catastrophe.”

Joining Strayhorn was Senator Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria). While he and subsequent speakers gave toned-down speeches without anti-Perry comments, they continued on the theme of the Trans-Texas Corridor’s cutting up rural Texas and hurting property rights. Armbrister said local governments would also suffer, as 200 acres per mile of the corridor would be taken off the tax rolls.

Joining Strayhorn, Armbrister and several local officials were Reps Robby Cook (D-Eagle Lake), Lois Kohlkhorst (R-Brenham), Harvey Hildebran (R-Kerrville) and Glen Hegar (R-Katy).

The representatives called on the crowd to urge support of HB 3363 by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), which would put a two-year moratorium on the corridor. The bill is currently in the House Transportation Committee, would also stop the corridor, put a moratorium on tolls by TxDOT and establish a “Select Committee on Highway Financing.”

The bill was referred to the Transportation committee in March, but has not yet had a hearing.

Perry/Strayhorn spat

Perry’s response was to cite what his office said was Strayhorn’s previous support of toll roads. Pointing to her January, 2001 report, “Paving the Way,” Perry said that the Comptroller recommended tolling existing roads, speeding up construction time with toll financing, and using taxpayer dollars to fund construction of toll roads.

Perry spokesman Robert Black said Strayhorn was sending mixed messages.

“Who knew Comptroller Strayhorn could run away so fast from her own recommendations?” he said. “The fact is the Comptroller can’t talk fast enough to cover up her hypocrisy in this case. It is a mystery why she wants the Legislature to restore her authority to do performance reviews when she attacks legislators for implementing her recommendations...”

Strayhorn called the Perry statement a “distortion,” saying that her report only stated what was being done in other states to raise money, and was not a recommendation that Texas do the same.

One of Perry’s criticisms was that Strayhorn supported revenue bonds for toll roads, but Strayhorn said such bonds were not necessarily tied to toll projects.

Mike Cox , a spokesman for TxDOT, said other bond projects besides toll roads could include commuter rail projects, where a portion of the fare collected could be used for leverage, or a bus line or direct monetary contribution from a local government, or any other transportation project that needed money up front and could leverage future cash to pay off the bonds.

The Comptroller pushed through Thursday a motion before the Texas Bond Review Board to clarify that toll roads would not be a prerequisite to receive revenue from a $4 billion Texas Mobility Fund bond issue.

Senate omnibus transportation bill

SB 1706 by Sen. Todd Staples (R-Palestine) is a comprehensive package of transportation ideas, many of which have nothing to do with highways, toll roads, or the Trans-Texas Corridor. The bill includes rail and aviation provisions. But its central portion concerns the corridor.

The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee voted the bill out on May 4.

“This is a cleanup from HB 3588 from last session that we spent a considerable amount of time on in order to address property owners’ concerns and address a more functional transportation system,” Staples explained in laying out the bill. He later told LSR that concerns about toll conversion were also a large factor behind the bill.

“We are going to tighten up the toll conversion process,” he said. “Only allow existing roads to be converted after a vote of the people. We think that is a great hurdle to get the citizens back in control of that process...We’re [also] going to ensure that water rights are not abused through the condemnation process.”

Some issues in the bill dealing with toll roads:

* One of the biggest concerns with the corridor project has been raised over water rights: Who decides whether water from the corridor footprint can be pumped out of the area and sold? SB 1706 prohibits any ground water pumping except for use in the construction of the project or maintenance of a facility (such as a gas station) built in conjunction with the project.

* The original corridor legislation allowed for the construction of ancillary facilities as part of the project, with little definition or constraints. SB 1706 clarifies this language, restricting such facilities to gas stations, convenience stores and similar types of facilities, and preventing the construction of hotels, restaurants or theme parks on corridor land.

“There was a wide variety of commercial facilities, and there was grave concern about competition with the private market and for people’s land to be condemned for such purposes,” Staples said.

The bill, as amended in the committee, stipulates that such facilities cannot be located closer than five miles from any existing facility or a cross road where such a facility could be built. Such ancillary facilities would be built in the highway median and not in additional land purchased for that purpose.

The bill further states that land leased for those purposes would be subject to local property tax.

* SB 1706 also adds an annual audit for any tolled project in the state. O

The Lone Star Report: