Thursday, February 15, 2007

Sen. Watson uses smoke and mirrors to sell freeway toll roads again

Watson files bill aimed at accountability on toll roads

Proposal would give more authority to elected, instead of appointed, officials

February 15, 2007

By Mike Ward
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and other such entities across Texas would get greater power in decisions about toll roads — from increased financial review to inclusion of more elected officials in decisions — under a bill filed today by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Senate Bill 668 would "put more openness and transparency" in decisions on toll roads that are mostly made now by regional mobility authorities, which are made up of appointees, said Watson, who is chairman of CAMPO. "Many people's frustration and anger has been that there is not more openness in the process."

Metropolitan planning organizations and regional mobility authorities operate in Austin and other major cities across the state. The latter's toll road decisions have become increasingly controversial in Austin and several cities in recent years.

Other provisions of the proposal would allow local governments to be reimbursed for money they put into road projects that later become toll roads and would require the approval of metropolitan planning organizations on many decisions involving toll roads that the regional authorities now make by themselves.

In addition, the governing boards over local toll projects would have to include at least one elected official, and they would have to file an annual financial report detailing data about planned and existing toll roads.

Watson, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said the measure is intended to open the tolling process to more public view.

"We need to have people accountable to the voters" on the regional authorities, he said. "There's a need for people to feel like the decisions are made in the open. . . . This bill would do that."

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