Monday, January 29, 2007

"Look for some transportation fireworks in the next four months."

Senator, Transportation Department off to rough start in session.

January 29, 2007

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

That loud "D'oh!" you keep hearing from East 11th Street is the sound that Texas Department of Transportation officials make every time state Sen. John Carona files a bill. Or opens his mouth.

Carona, a Dallas Republican who leads the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, had filed 24 bills as of late last week, and several amount to a repudiation of what Transportation Department leaders have done the past few years with toll roads.

Then there was that little matter of Carona's call this month for Gov. Rick Perry to replace Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson. Carona has publicly referred to the department as arrogant and told me that his overall theme for transportation policy this session will be "proceed with caution."

That stands in contrast to state transportation officials, whose theme has been and continues to be more like "Katy bar the door."

Now, it would be one thing if this were just any old legislator taking these shots. But Carona's committee, like its twin in the House led by Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, is the gatehouse for all legislation that the Transportation Department would like to see happen. Or see stopped.

Carona, it appears, won't be anxious to do much of either.

He has filed a bill to outlaw so-called non-compete clauses for toll roads, language in bond sales documents that bar the Transportation Department from building highways that would hurt a tollway's bottom line. Another would reduce from 70 years to 30 years the length of contracts with private companies to build and operate toll roads. The Transportation Department wants that 70-year cap erased.

He also has a bill that would bar the Transportation Department from accepting upfront payments from private companies that want to build toll roads, like the $1.2 billion that Spanish-American consortium Cintra-Zachry said it would pay to build part of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

I should point out that Carona is not against all toll roads. And two of his bills would generate more money for the Transportation Department.

Senate Bill 165 would have the state's 20-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax float upward with the annual inflation rate for highway construction. And that inflation index would be applied to the whole gasoline tax rate, including the fed's 18.4 cents-a-gallon, which means it would grow fast and generate billions over time.

But this isn't necessarily a friendly bill from the Perry administration's point of view because rising gas taxes would probably make people even less likely to support toll roads, Perry's preferred strategy for building highways.

Senate Bill 126, meanwhile, would redirect about $300 million a year of various fees to the Texas Mobility Fund, which is used by the Transportation Department to build, mostly, tollways.

So, Carona giveth, but he mostly taketh away. Look for some transportation fireworks in the next four months.

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