Friday, March 02, 2007

"The drumbeat is getting louder."


Hundreds challenge Trans-Texas Corridor at hearing

March 1, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – Texas' toll-road policies hit a pothole Thursday as Senate leaders and dozens of speakers railed against the Trans-Texas Corridor and other privately operated toll roads, including State Highway 121.

"We want a do-over," said Garland resident Willa Kulhavy, who drove to Austin to protest the Trans-Texas Corridor and the state's other toll road plans.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, agreed.

"I think it's fair to say that many legislators who voted for this legislation in the past would like a do-over as well," said Mr. Carona, the chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

The hearing marked the first time that Senate leaders held a meeting solely to question past major transportation legislation, including House Bill 3588 in 2003. That bill and another piece of legislation in 2005 paved the way for the Trans-Texas Corridor, Gov. Rick Perry's $181 billion vision for hundreds of miles of new toll roads crossing the state. The first corridor project will parallel Interstate 35, and portions could be open in six years.

Thursday's committee meeting featured more than 100 registered speakers and more than 500 written comments. An overflow crowd of more than 500 forced Capitol officials to set up television feeds in three committee rooms.

The hearing sets the stage for further debate as various bills limiting the scope of toll roads move through the Legislature. However, the chances those bills will become law could be limited because the corridor has supporters in the Legislature, and because the governor probably will support the department's approach. And while the Trans-Texas Corridor still appears likely, legislators could chip away at that plan.

Roads are questioned

The growing use of toll roads revolves around the need for more revenue for road projects. Lawmakers have been reluctant to raise gasoline taxes in the past, and that has led to a large number of toll road proposals. Senators say their constituents are beginning to question the toll-road push.

"I know what my colleagues and I are hearing, and it is growing in numbers," Mr. Carona said. "The drumbeat is getting louder."

Trust between lawmakers and the Transportation Department also is wearing thin.

"It's human nature. People have been led to believe there is some other agenda," Mr. Carona told transportation commissioners.

The daylong hearing also elicited rounds of applause for auditors and a smattering of boos for transportation commissioners. The state auditor's office drew applause after its presentation questioned the Texas Department of Transportation's accounting methods.

Auditors found $29 million budgeted for legal fees associated with the Trans-Texas Corridor. They also found that some of the Transportation Department's payments for expenses originally billed as Trans-Texas Corridor engineering costs should have been coded as spending on public relations efforts.

"To the extent anyone working for me has made a mistake in coding an invoice, it will be corrected," said Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson.

The state needs up to $86 billion to meet its upcoming road-building needs, and the only real option the Transportation Department has is toll roads, Mr. Williamson said.

"There was no way, short of inviting the private sector into our world, that we were going to be able to bridge that $86 billion gap," he said.

Taking back control

Elected leaders from Hill County, Montgomery County, Cooke County, Wharton County and many other areas spoke against the toll road plans, with some urging lawmakers to wrest control of transportation policy back from the state Transportation Department.

"We've given too much away to the [Texas Transportation] Commission," said former Hillsboro Mayor Will Lowrance, chairman of the Hill County Historical Commission. "Please take charge of transportation in the state of Texas, and people will be behind you."

Members of the committee, which also includes Sens. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, and Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, discussed this week's approval of a multibillion-dollar deal to turn over the State Highway 121 project to a private builder and operator for the next 50 years. Of particular concern to those lawmakers was wording of the Highway 121 deal to allow toll rates to rise automatically every two years.

Some estimates show that toll rates could rise from 14.5 cents per mile in 2010 to 70 cents per mile or more by the end of the deal in 2057. A trip on the 24-mile toll road would cost about $3 in 2010, and could rise to about $15 in 2057.

Such deals have led lawmakers to file bills that would halt any more toll road deals with private groups. While politically popular, such a move could harm Tarrant County, which is working on two major projects that could open in a few years.

"We can't wait. We need it done," said North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino.


House Bill 857 – Repeals authority for the establishment of the Trans-Texas Corridor

House Bill 962 and Senate Bill 165 – Provides for annual increases to the state gas tax based on inflation

House Bill 998 – Prohibits creation of any new Texas Department of Transportation toll roads until 2009

Senate Bill 275 – Limits the time a private group can collect tolls on a state highway to 30 years

Senate Bill 386 – Requires that tolls on state roads be set at a rate no higher than needed to cover costs and meet financial reserve requirements

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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