Thursday, June 09, 2005

A partial Review of House Bill 2702

A look at the latest Trans-Texas corridor bill

by Christine DeLoma

Volume 9, Issue 41
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2005

In the final days of the session, lawmakers approved a comprehensive transportation bill that addresses issues relating to the 4,000 mile, multi-million-dollar Trans-Texas Corridor plan, concerns over property rights, and the financing of toll roads.

Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock) authored and Sen. Todd Staples (R-Palestine) sponsored, the omnibus transportation bill, HB 2702.

Here's a summary of the issues addressed in the legislation:

Toll road conversions

A law passed two years ago allows the state to take existing free roads – already bought and paid for with tax dollars – and turn them into toll roads. The law drew the ire of taxpayers throughout the state.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's (CAMPO) plan to toll existing roads throughout the Austin area is one example. Public opposition caused CAMPO to retreat on its plan to turn a portion of U.S. 183, already under construction, into a toll road in Northwest Austin.

This year, the Legislature addressed this highly charged issue. HB2702 says that voters must now approve the conversion of a free road into a toll road. But there are exceptions.

The legislation does not apply to projects that were started before Sept. 1, 2005.

Conversion of free roads to tolls is also allowed if a project expands capacity without eliminating non-tolled lanes. In this case, a public vote would not be required.

Private property concerns

HB 2702 addresses the private property concerns of the Texas Farm Bureau over construction of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Farm Bureau spokesmen earlier told lawmakers the Corridor's proposed width (1,200 ft.) could split up many farms and ranches, making it difficult for property owners to reach their own properties. To visit both sides of a property that had been split in two, for example, a farmer might have to drive as much as 30 miles to an overpass over the corridor, then drive the same distance down the other side.

To assuage such concerns, the legislation allows TxDOT to compensate property owners for the severing of their land. TxDOT can purchase part of the farmer's land and pay for any damages caused by the severance. TxDOT can also allow farmers to build an alternative route to access their severed property.

Compensation could come in other forms as well. Instead of paying a fixed purchase price to acquire property for a toll project, TxDOT can pay property owners affected by the corridor a percentage of toll-generated revenue as well as rights to free use of the toll road.

Other private property protections include requiring the state to provide farmers, ranchers and businesses sufficient notice before filing a declaration of a taking of their land for toll road construction.

HB 2702 limits commercial development along the Corridor. The Texas Transportation Commission is prohibited from leasing condemned land to commercial businesses or ancillary facilities, like gas stations and convenience stores, unless the facilities are located within the median of the highway and are more than 10 miles from the nearest intersection of a state or interstate highway.

The legislation allows property owners to retain development rights when their property is to be used for an ancillary facility.

Water rights

A major concern with the Corridor project is water rights. HB 2702 prohibits any groundwater pumping except for use in the construction or maintenance of the project.

It also clarifies that the use of a well located within the boundaries of a groundwater conservation district is subject to the district's rules.

Financing of toll and non-toll roads

Despite the toll road controversy, HB 2702 makes it easier for TxDOT and counties to acquire financing to build toll roads. The Legislature raised from $800 million to $2 billion the ceiling on TxDOT expenditures for "toll equity" grants, which are funds from gasoline taxes used to pay for toll roads.

The legislation also allows particular counties to issue bonds to construct, maintain and operate toll or non-toll roads or facilities. Counties that choose to take on a toll road project can leverage revenue bonds to potential toll revenue.

If TxDOT requires that toll roads be included in regional mobility plans, the legislation prohibits the use of Texas Mobility Funds.

Comprehensive development agreements

HB 2702 allows the state to enter into comprehensive development agreements (CDA) with private companies to build and operate both tolled and non-tolled projects. The CDA can include the setting and collection of tolls and penalties. TxDOT must approve the methodology for the determination of toll rates. The length of the contract cannot exceed 50 years.

The legislation also authorizes the state to enter into CDAs for the construction and operation of rail projects.

Hydrogen fuel vehicles

A portion of the bill authorizes TxDOT to buy hydrogen-fueled vehicles fitted with hydrogen internal combustion engines or fuel cells. Another portion allows for the construction and operation of five hydrogen refueling stations along the Corridor.

If TxDOT secures funding for the project, consumers may be able to purchase fuel for their hydrogen- fueled vehicles. TxDOT would also collect data on emissions of these alternative-fueled cars and compare them with emissions from standard internal combustion vehicles.

Odds and ends

* Commuter rail referendum. HB 2702 allows Capital Metro to hold a referendum on commuter rail expansion in May or August rather than in November of even-numbered years.

* State Aircraft Pooling Board abolished. All powers, duties and obligations are transferred to TxDOT.

* Vehicle registration renewal notices . Outsourced to private companies.

* Billboards prohibited on segments 1 through 4 of SH 130.O

The Lone Star Report: