Sunday, May 22, 2005

Toll Detours?

Tollway plans now face vote detours

Associated Press

AUSTIN — Conversion of existing Texas freeways into toll roads would require a public vote under a transportation bill approved Saturday by the state Senate.

The same bill also strengthens some private property rights in the event the state takes land for highway projects.

The Legislature made sweeping changes in the transportation code in 2003 to open the door for the use of tollways to generate revenue for construction to ease traffic congestion.

But toll roads have been met with stiff resistance in some areas as residents complained roads that were promised as freeways later were set to become tollways.

Under the measure passed Saturday, any attempt by the state to convert a freeway to tollway would require a public vote. If local governments tried to do it, it would require a vote of the local county commissioners court.

It also requires that any tolls collected would have to be used on local transportation or air quality projects.

The bill also would have some impact on the development of the Trans-Texas Corridor, Gov. Rick Perry's ambitious $184 billion vision of thousands of miles of tollways, railways and utility lines crisscrossing the state.

The state already is under contract with the Spanish consortium Cintra to begin designing the first 600-mile phase to run roughly parallel to Interstate 35.

Although the plan calls for Cintra to operate and collect the tolls for 50 years, the Senate bill gives the state the power to regulate the toll rate.

The Texas Farm Bureau had resisted the corridor project with worries that farmers could be forced to give up land without adequate compensation. The Senate bill requires the state to pay for the land it acquires and for damages that may be caused by a split in property.

The bill also limits groundwater pumping in affected areas and requires the state to provide access to the corridor where it intersects other state and federal highways.