Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"I think we’re all in favor of pulling it to a halt.”

Senate hearing on TTC on Thursday

February 28, 2007

By JOANN LIVINGSTON, Managing Editor
The Waxahachie Daily Light
Copyright 2007

The Australian, a newspaper based in Sydney, described Texas as “the toll road El Dorado” in a recent online article that also referenced “vast toll road riches up for grabs in Texas.”

A Spanish term, El Dorado means “the golden one” and typically is used as the name of a fabled land of gold and riches.

More recently, the term has been used metaphorically to reference any place where wealth could be rapidly acquired, according to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia.

Whether toll roads are indeed a road to riches or not is about to be determined in Texas, where public private partnerships involving such roadways are coming under increasing fire during the 80th Legislature.

Last week, a State Auditor’s Office report criticized the Texas Department of Transportion and the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, a project that could encompass about 8,000 miles if built out completely.

Earlier this week, TxDOT officials were subjected to intense questioning on several areas in front of the House Appropriations Committee.

Tomorrow, a state Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee hearing gets under way at 8:30 a.m. with discussion to include toll roads, the Trans-Texas Corridor and public/private partnerships.

“We have initiated some sweeping changes in transportation policy over the last four years,” said state Sen. John Carona, committee chairman, in an earlier press release announcing the public hearing. “The state has aggressively pursued a new toll policy, rapidly expanded the use of public-private partnerships for transportation infrastructure, and accelerated the process of developing the Trans-Texas Corridor.

“In the process, we clearly have not fully heard or taken into consideration the views of the public,” the Dallas Republican said. “Before we go any further, the policy makers need to hear from the people.”

Those wanting to testify can do so orally or in writing. Witness forms are available from the committee office at (512) 463-0067, on the committee Web site at, by fax via (512) 463-2840 or by e-mail from Testimony will be taken through the hearing, which is expected to conclude at about 6 p.m.

"I'm looking forward to watching Sen. Carona's hearing," said state Rep. Jim Pitts, whose district would be impacted by the TTC-35 portion of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

"It's refreshing to see so many members asking tough questions of TxDOT," the Waxahachie Republican said. "I've been pressing TxDOT for answers to some of these questions for more than a year, and it's time they gave members of the public a straight answer on how the corridor will affect them and how these toll roads will be managed."

On Friday, a march and rally are planned in Austin as protestors of Gov. Rick Perry’s massive transportation project converge on the state Capitol to make their feelings known.

“Not only will the TTC be a new tax for Texans to pay, but thousands of acres of land will be condemned, taking valuable property away from Texas land owners,” said Gina Parker Ford of the National Eagle Forum, who will be among the speakers.

“Some will come on horses, some on tractors, and many more on motorcycles - all united together against wasteful spending, questionable tactics by Gov. Perry, and a virtual double-tax on our roadways through toll fares,” Ford said.

Despite the opposition, toll roads appear to be moving ahead in Texas. On Tuesday, a Spanish transportation company contracted to build the Trans-Texas Corridor won a recommendation to turn State Highway 121 into a toll road through Collin and Denton counties.

Earlier today, the Transportation Commission approved the comprehensive development agreement for that project with Cintra Concessiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte. The CDA will provide more than $5 billion for State Highway 121 and other transportation projects in North Texas.

The agreement will bring completion of the SH 121 project by 2011 - a quarter century faster than would have been possible with traditional gasoline tax revenue, TxDOT officials said.
“Austin, we have a solution,” said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Texas Council of Governments in announcing that Cintra was being recommended to the Transportation Commission as the best of three private-sector proposals to complete and maintain the 26-mile Lewisville to McKinney toll project.

After hearing the details of the Cintra proposal, the five-member commission voted unanimously to approve it.

“This is an incredible transportation milestone not only for North Texas, but the whole state,” said TxDOT executive director Mike Behrens. “Regional government officials, not Austin or Washington, made this happen.”

The agreement with Cintra, a joint venture with a fund advised by JPMorgan Asset Management, is expected to close this summer. It will bring North Texas a $2.1 billion concession payment plus $560 million for design and construction of SH 121 in Denton and Collins counties. In addition, Cintra will pay $700 million in lease payments over the next 49 years as well as $1.7 billion for operation and maintenance of the toll road.

The CDA will allow for completion of SH 121 some 25 years sooner than would have been possible with gasoline tax revenue said Bill Hale, TxDOT’s Dallas District engineer. The Collin County segment of SH 121 should be finished by the fall of 2009, with an interchange at U.S. 75 completed a year later, followed by an interchange with the Dallas North Tollway by 2011.

The next step in the process is final environmental approval of the Collin County segment of the project, followed this summer by formal closure of the contractual agreements and receipt of the $2.1 billion concession payment.

At the same time the governor’s office and TxDOT officials are touting the pros of such projects, lawmakers are taking a closer look at the situation.

State Sen. Kip Averitt, R-McGregor, addressed a group from Ellis County on Wednesday at the Capitol, saying lawmakers are concerned with what appears to be a lack of responsiveness on the part of TxDOT to lawmakers and their constituents’ wishes.

He noted legislation has been filed that ranges from overhauling the agency to killing the Trans-Texas Corridor project outright.

“TxDOT is not being responsive to what we’re hearing from our people,” Averitt said. “I think we’re all in favor of pulling it to a halt.”

Carona said the Cintra deal for State Highway 121 includes provisions that bar the state from building its own roads in the area during the 50-year contract. That puts the state in a financial bind if it wants to build roads to help a growing population.

“The advantage is roads will be built sooner,” Carona said. “What you won’t hear about is toll rates will be raised unlike anything we have seen today.”

Senate Finance Committee chairman Steve Ogden, who pushed the 2003 bill that helped set up the toll road initiative, said he was “asleep or not smart enough” to recognize potential problems.

“We are giving away a public asset and don’t have much say about it for 50 years,” said Ogden, R-Bryan.

On the House side, Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, issued the following statement: “I am very glad to see the audit concerning the Texas Department of Transportation. I appreciate its clarification of the policies and procedures the agency is following.

“Many members have concerns over such issues as the Trans Texas Corridor, and I welcome any suggestions for improvement,” Craddick said, noting that House Transportation Committee chairman Mike Krusee, R-Austin, and House Appropriations Committee chairman Wayne Chisum, R-Pampa, will study the audit.

“I look forward to their feedback,” Craddick said.

Cintra-Zachry, a Spanish-American consortium, plans to build the Trans-Texas Corridor, a state-owned toll road. The consortium, made up of Spain-based Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction, would get to operate the road and collect tolls.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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