Thursday, March 22, 2007

Carona: A moratorium "ought to remain a last resort,"

Toll road policy debate revs up

Legislature: Moratorium of 2 years on private projects one of proposals

March 22, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – Lawmakers continued their assault on Texas' toll road policy in a Senate hearing Wednesday, while two House and Senate leaders pledged to work together on a comprehensive bill that would lessen the state's reliance on pay-as-you-drive roads.

The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee heard testimony on six toll road bills Wednesday, including a bill filed by a former Texas Transportation Commission member that would place a two-year moratorium on future private toll roads.

That bill, which has been filed in the House and Senate, has gathered enough supporters in both chambers that the Legislature could override any veto by Gov. Rick Perry.

While Wednesday's debate was fiery at times, lawmakers did not take action on the moratorium or other toll road bills.

A moratorium "ought to remain a last resort," said Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

"With North Texas in need of so many major road projects, a moratorium at this time in my opinion would be disastrous," he said. "That said, it remains a tool at our disposal should we be unable to reach consensus on the issues that are most troubling."

The push against privately operated toll roads has increased in the weeks since the Texas Department of Transportation announced a 50-year deal with Madrid-based Cintra to build and operate a State Highway 121 toll road in Denton and Collin counties. Cintra has guaranteed $2.8 billion in cash, including $2.1 billion upfront that will help pay for other road projects.

The Cintra deal was the flashpoint of Wednesday's Senate hearing and prompted a pointed exchange between two of Collin County's highest-ranking public officials.

New Collin County Judge Keith Self told senators that his fast-growing, traffic-choked county can't afford a delay in the State Highway 121 project.

"I really don't care who builds the road, but we need the road," Mr. Self said.

That drew a rebuke from Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, a longtime toll-road advocate who told Mr. Self she was "absolutely not here to kill the road."

"I think what should be unacceptable to you as the county judge is to accept a bid on a proposal for 121 that is going to gouge our citizens over the next 50 years," Ms. Shapiro said.

Mr. Carona said Wednesday that he and his House counterpart, Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, are working on a comprehensive bill that could mean more money for transportation, possibly without as much reliance on toll roads.

Alternatives include raising gasoline taxes based on inflation measures, and limiting lawmakers' ability to tap transportation revenue for other purposes.

"This allows us to deal with transportation in a more global sense," Mr. Krusee said. "If we don't want to do as many private partnerships, that means we would somehow have to put more money into the system."

But any tax bill must originate in the House, where opposition to a tax increase continues.

"They have tax fatigue in the House," said Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, at the committee hearing. "This type of funding [tolls] is tax fatigue in a camouflage. They're going to get it one way or another."

A comprehensive bill also could address several major concerns related to private toll-road partnerships, Mr. Krusee said. Those concerns include the length of private toll-road deals and non-compete clauses that restrict a state's ability to build non-toll highways near a privately operated toll road.

With all the bills being filed, is Texas' push toward private toll roads losing steam?

"It's too soon to say," said Mr. Krusee.

At Wednesday's hearing, Mr. Brimer offered an amendment that would exempt certain Tarrant County toll projects from the proposed moratorium, including those featuring toll lanes in the middle of rebuilt highways such as State Highway 183.

But the moratorium bill's author, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said he expects the Highway 121 project to be included in the freeze.;

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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