Thursday, March 22, 2007

Carona won't give the measure a vote in his committee.

Tollway freeze bill frozen

Committee chairman, a co-sponsor of moratorium on private road contracts, says no vote likely on bill

March 22, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The chairman of the Senate's transportation panel, despite being one of more than 125 legislators co-sponsoring legislation to shelve private toll road contracts for two years, said Wednesday he won't give the measure a vote in his committee.

"I don't intend to move it," said Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. Carona has repeatedly criticized Texas Department of Transportation policy and officials in recent months and is among 25 Senate co-sponsors of SB 1267, the moratorium bill by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

Carona is trying to work out a large compromise transportation bill with toll policy supporters and has struck a more conciliatory tone in recent days. Carona aide Steven Polunsky said that although Carona thinks that some sort of controls on private toll road contracts are in order, a two-year freeze might remove the only option available to get some badly needed road projects done.

Carona and his committee, which includes Nichols, spent most of Wednesday afternoon listening to — and sometimes debating with — local elected officials from the Dallas-Fort Worth area concerned that a moratorium on such toll road arrangements might delay by several years road work nearly ready to begin.

"To put a moratorium on these projects is like a stake in the heart for many of us," said Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes. "We feel we're going to be very, very damaged."

Nichols, a former Texas Transportation Commission member, says such contracts with private companies have the potential for long-term financial damage, at least based on language in the first two such arrangements between the state and private companies. Pending contracts for Texas 130 southeast of Austin and Texas 121 in Collin County set out broad areas in which the state, over a period of more than half a century, might have to pay the companies if it builds competing roads.

Many senators are concerned that private road contracts, because companies must make profits, would have higher tolls than roads run by government agencies.

Carona's committee Wednesday considered seven bills that in various ways would rollback some of the powers the Legislature granted to the Texas Department of Transportation in 2003 and 2005. Carona said the committee probably will vote on some of them today.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, carried four of those bills, including one that would outlaw private road contracts with the state and another that would require that toll revenue be used only on the road where the tolls are charged.

Ogden likens what has happened to Texas transportation policy to a golf bag. The rules of that game allow a golfer to carry 14 clubs. Over the past four years, as the Legislature tried to find new ways to inject money into an increasingly cash-starved transportation system, "We gave TxDOT 21 tools in the golf bag when they really only need 14," Ogden said. Allowing the state to grant long-term tollway leases to private companies, Ogden said, is "the 21st club."

Carona, who is carrying a bill that would use an inflation index to annually increase the state's long-frozen 20 cents a gallon gas tax, used his Wednesday hearing to step up the pressure for such legislation. The tax, last increased in 1991, has lost about half its value to inflation and traffic increases. He asked everyone who testified whether they would support a gas tax inflation index. Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes.

However, the answer in the House, where by law tax increase bills must originate, remains no.

Rep. Jim Keffer, an Eastland Republican who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a few weeks ago heard Rep. Mike Krusee's gas tax indexing bill in his committee, but he has left the Williamson County Republican's bill pending. He said Tuesday that his inclination is to let it die.

"If the whole committee came to me and said, 'Let's do it,' I'll have to give it a lot of credence," Keffer said. "But they haven't done that."

Carona told his Senate committee about the House position on the gas tax.

"They have 'tax fatigue,' whatever that is," Carona said. "That's all fine and well. But there's not an ounce of statesmanship in tax fatigue."; 445-3698

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