Friday, January 26, 2007

"Many people feel like their voices have not been heard. They simply have not been listened to. "


Interview: Sen. Transportation chairman John Carona


William Lutz
The Lone Star Report
Vol 11, Issue 22
Copyright 2007

When you’re talking to Texans about cars and highways, you’re guaranteed their rapt attention. As Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) well knows.

Carona last year won Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s nod for chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security. From toll roads to gasoline taxes to red-light cameras, issues before the panel stretch with the endlessness of a West Texas interstate.

Already the new chairman has filed several noteworthy bills and called for important changes in Texas transportation policies. He discussed it with LSR this week.

LSR: How do you view the Trans-Texas Corridor?

Carona: To this day, there is still a great deal of controversy surrounding the corridor. Many people feel like their voices have not been heard. They simply have not been listened to. It’s one of the reasons why on March 1 we’re going to hold a hearing here in Austin and allow the public to come forward and speak directly to the Legislature about their concerns.

If you have rural interests - you’re a farm or ranch owner - you’re very concerned about eminent domain.

If you are a taxpayer in this state, you are very concerned about what amount of state money, if any, will go into the project, how long it will take to be built.

If you are an elected leader in one of our communities along I-35, you’re concerned about what the Trans-Texas Corridor may do in terms of diverting business away from your center of commercial activity in your small town or region.

So there are a lot of reasons to be concerned.

Of course, the underlying concern [with the corridor] being whether or not it’s good public policy to have a private company operate a major Texas roadway, as would be the [case with the] corridor should it ever be built.

LSR: What is toll equity, and what changes should be made to it?

Carona: The term toll equity has been coined in that the Transportation commission and TxDOT will have to financially supplement a toll project that may not have as great a volume in one part of the state as in others. Not all areas are really automatically attractive for toll construction. Yet at the current time with limitations on the state funding for roadways, that might be the only way build a toll [road].

The question comes in with the subjectivity of the process. Many people feel that the formula that’s been used to provide equity - the amount of supplement for one toll project in one part of the state - hasn’t necessarily been consistent with the way the money has been applied in other toll projects in other regions. I think you’ll see the Legislature take a much more careful approach in that, and really begin to examine whether or not there ought to be toll equity and whether or not these projects are being handled in a fair and consistent fashion. And I think that’s an appropriate thing for the Legislature to do.

LSR: What are comprehensive development agreements, and what should the Legislature do with them?

Carona: Comprehensive development agreements are agreements between the public (in this case the state) and private companies to be able to build roads in this state. And these Comprehensive Development Agreements, or CDAs, are entered into after they are placed out for bid with private companies. Most recently - again - the conversation involving CDAs has to do with major toll projects throughout the state.

But there are some concerns about these comprehensive development agreements, which the Legislature authorized into law over the last six-year period. In particular, the concern is these agreements contain provisions that limit competition. The non-compete provisions actually keep the state from building other free roads that might ultimately compete with the toll road over whatever the length of the CDA is.

[CDA length] is also part of the concern. These CDA agreements can extend 70 years. And, in fact, the Transportation commission would like to take that limit off altogether, where, in theory, private operators could come in and operate these Texas roadways for a 100-year period of time. I think that’s inappropriate. It goes far beyond what ought to be the reasonable authority of the Texas Transportation Commission. So those are the kind of changes we’ll be looking to make in the years ahead. [Carona’s SB 149 would prohibit non-compete clauses in CDAs.]<>

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