Saturday, June 04, 2005

79th Legislature Goes Whole-Hog for Toll Roads

Legislature: Toll-speed ahead

Public skepticism of toll roads fails to take hold as lawmakers reject increased gas taxes and provide more momentum for toll road push

June 04, 2005
By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman Copyright 2005

If a cartographer could somehow represent the state's toll road debate over the past two years on a Texas map, you would see a series of periodic bursts of flame.

There's the flare-up in Austin in late 2003 over an attempt to make U.S. 183 a toll road. Then a starburst on Texas 249 near Houston and explosions on Texas 6 near College Station and Texas 121 in the Metroplex over proposed toll conversions. A consistent slow burn from El Paso over pressure to create toll roads, and an ever-spreading series of rural brush fires near the invisible lines of the Trans-Texas Corridor. And then, of course, a bright flash from last July, when local officials approved seven more toll roads in Austin.

But if that same map and its time line extended through May 30 of this year, the area near 11th Street and Congress Avenue in Austin with that pink granite dome would be strangely dark. For while the Texas Department of Transportation's aggressive use since 2003 of its newfound power to create toll roads stirred up the public, the legislative session that just ended was mostly devoid of passion on the issue.

And the transportation law that emerged, despite some concessions to rural and urban concerns about tolls, by and large confirmed that the state's official policy for building major new or expanded highways is that they will almost always be toll roads. Lawmakers, whether they intended to or not, likewise buttressed that two-year-old policy by what they didn't do: pass a gasoline tax increase.

"The session went from being disastrous to being just fantastic," said state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and a toll road supporter who sponsored HB 2702. That hefty catch-all transportation bill passed just minutes before a midnight May 29 death knell mandated by legislative rules.

"TxDOT is as happy as can be," Krusee said.

The Legislature addressed the highly emotional issue of taking free roads and making them toll roads. These so-called "conversions" would require a public vote, and the Transportation Department will no longer be able to take a road under construction as a free road (such as U.S. 183 in Northwest Austin) and at the last moment dub it a toll road. But the exceptions associated with the new law — if a project adds expressway lanes with tolls but also has a number of free frontage lanes equal to what existed before, it will not be a conversion — mean that none of the controversial proposed toll roads in Austin will come up for a public vote.

Beyond that, Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the 2003 law making conversions legal but would have to approve any in the future, has said he opposes them now. So does just about any politician or appointed transportation official you ask, now that angry crowds across the state have condemned the practice. No actual conversions have occurred.

So the changes approved may amount to putting a deadbolt on an already closed and locked barn door.

But the Legislature in other ways moved the ball well ahead on tolls. It raised from $800 million a year to $2 billion a year a ceiling on how much gas tax money the Transportation Department can spend on "toll equity," essentially the cash-on-hand downpayments that are combined with money borrowed on the bond market to pay for toll roads. Tolls then go to pay back the bond investors and maintain the turnpike, with excess money available for other projects.

Raising that toll equity cap, at least in theory, might leave little money for any "free" metro improvements. This year, the department had less than $2 billion to spend overall on new urban construction, including non-toll roads.

The news was better for rural opponents of the Trans-Texas Corridor, Gov. Rick Perry's proposed 4,000-mile, $180 billion network of intrastate turnpikes, rail lines and utility corridors. Krusee said that as HB 2702 hung in the balance, he heard from corridor opponents such as the Texas Farm Bureau and Fayette County-based CorridorWatch saying that they were rooting for its passage.

The legislation, after all, had elements they had requested. But the rural critics would have preferred for the Legislature to deep-six the corridor entirely, or at the very least require that the conglomerations of roads and rails be considerably narrower than the 1,200 feet that the Transportation Department has suggested in mock-ups of the corridor. Such a limit, 800 feet was a popular number early in the session, did not become law.

"The problem was that our people did not tell us to fix the corridor. Our policy was to oppose the corridor," said Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau. "While we're not completely satisfied with what we got, the legislative process is always a compro- mise."

As you may have heard, however, compromise was not in the air this session when it came to taxes.

Lawmakers rejected two attempts to get more money for transportation the traditional way, by raising the state's 20-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax for the first time since 1991. Krusee carried a bill, HB 5, that would have tied the tax rate to inflation, which means it would gone up perhaps a half-cent-a-gallon per year. For the typical driver, that's less than $5 a year.

But even that modest increase, which would have raised just $50 million or so in the first year but more significant amounts over time, was too much for the tax-phobic House. After being passed by a committee, and getting House Speaker Tom Craddick's emphatic endorsement, support evaporated, and Krusee allowed it to die without a floor vote.

A second measure to create a local-option gas tax increase, subject to a public vote, was attached to a larger finance bill and cleared the House. But it died in the Senate.

So, at least for now, tolls seem to be the only significant new source of road and rail money that the Legislature will countenance.

"I just wish that 20 cents a gallon would get everything we need done," said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who pushed for limits on the Trans-Texas Corridor. "But it's not going to."

Kolkhorst says that perhaps we've seen only brushfires so far. That when the many toll roads discussed over the past two years start to become actual toll roads with actual charges to drivers, legislators may gain a new appreciation for other — and older — ways of paying for roads. Perhaps with that in mind, state Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, Krusee's opposite number as head of the Senate's transportation panel, sponsored a successful bill to create a commission to study road financing.

That nine-member panel, if Perry signs the bill, would have four legislators on it, probably including Krusee and Staples. It would also be required to produce a report and recommendations before the 2007 session.

Given Staples' and Krusee's comments this week and in the past, however, no one should hold their breath waiting for a report that trashes tolls and extols taxes.

"Some people in the (House) believe that highways should be treated like utilities," Kolkhorst said. "The more you use, the more you pay. I'm not ready to go there. But I'm old-fashioned."; 445-3698

There oughta be a law

A summary of transportation bills that went the distance this session — and some that crashed. Gov. Rick Perry has signed only a handful of these bills, but has given no hint of coming vetoes.

Toll roads and railroads — House Bill 2702 limits toll-road conversions; allows $2 billion per year spending of tax money on toll roads; provides more protection for landowners and limits commercial development on Trans-Texas Corridor; allows the state to use comprehensive contracts with private companies to build and run railroads. Senate Bill 1713 will create a nine-member commission, including four legislators, to study and report back to Legislature on how we pay for roads.

Capital Metro trifecta — Various bills lengthened terms for board members of the Austin transit agency, allowed toll agencies to waive bus tolls, and allowed the transit agency to hold rail elections more than one every two years.

Scenic Texas 130? — HB 2702 was amended to ban billboards on the toll road under construction east of Austin.

One way to move a railroad — HB 1546 would create a fund to relocate freight rail lines from urban to rural areas, but only if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November. And the fund would have money only if a future legislature puts some there.

TxDOCKED — Texas Mobility Fund for toll roads lost $250 million in coming two years (to help general fund spending) and $106 million of gas tax money will go for school buses. But other measures latching on to transportation money failed.


Index this! HB 5, providing for automatic inflation increases in the state gas tax, had the House speaker's endorsement and committee approval, then died. Move to create a local-option gas tax passed House, expired in Senate.

Eyes in the sky. Several attempts failed to reverse the 2003 bill allowing cities to write tickets for moving violations caught by a camera, not a cop.

Off the road again. Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, dropped bid to name part of Texas 130 for Willie Nelson after some Republicans objected.

Bike clearance. Bill would have mandated 3 feet of clearance when passing a bicycle on the road.

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