Former Texas Transportation Commissioner Nichols on TTC-69: 'Not in my back yard?'
Howard Roden, Senior Writer
The Courier (Montgomery County, Texas)
While state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, is not opposed to creation of the I-69/Trans Texas Corridor, he has thrown his full support against placing the controversial project through a historic corner of Montgomery County.
The lawmaker also is "very worried" about equity agreements that involve ownership of future toll roads financed by public/private partnership. Those concerns have prompted him to consider legislation that would protect local governments and taxpayers.
Nichols, whose 16-county district includes the Bays Chapel area in far northwest Montgomery County, said he is "100 percent" in favor of keeping the proposed super highway out of that area. He made that announcement Thursday after the state Senate Transportation Committee conducted a public hearing regarding the multi-billion dollar project.
The I-69/TTC project is designed to provide toll roads, high-speed rail and utility easements in a 1,200-foot-wide path from Mexico to Northeast Texas.
Although sparsely populated, Bays Chapel is replete with farms and ranches that have belonged to families for generations. A handful of residents attended the day-long hearing in Austin, while Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador went before the committee to voice his opposition to a proposed 3.5-mile-long route through Bays Chapel.
During his three-minute speech, Meador stressed to the committee how the Bays Chapel area is "steeped" in history.
"I told them it is a very special place," he said.
A ranch owner himself, Nichols praised Meador for his support of the area, and said it was important to "protect that corner" of Montgomery County.
"I'm with those folks. Commissioner Meador did a fantastic job of informing the committee the importance of preserving the Bays Chapel area," Nichols said. "I'm a ranch owner, but I don't have a piece of land that has the history that area has. I'm 100 percent in favor of trying to protect their land."
Nichols joins state Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, in declaring opposition to the corridor's presence in Montgomery County.
Bays Chapel resident Sharon Scott, who attended the hearing with her husband Milton, was "real happy" Nichols supports keeping the corridor out of her area.
Terri and Floyd Hurry, of Bays Chapel, also attended the public hearing. Learning of Nichols' support "gives me cold chills," Terri Hurry said. "I wish this would work out for everyone who lives along (the proposed corridor)."
Four other counties in Nichols' district - Angelina, Nacogdoches, Polk and Shelby - are slated to have the I-69/TTC project built in their backyards. Polk County Judge John Thompson spoke before the senate committee Thursday. He advocated the completion of Interstate 69 but did not address the issue of the Trans Texas Corridor, according to Nichols spokeswoman Alicia Phillips.
"Sen. Nichols is not opposed to the corridor," she said. "However, the way it is executed makes all the difference in the world."
A former member of the Texas Transportation Commission, Nichols seeks a revision in the framework of contracts that would involve the construction of toll roads funded through public/private partnerships. Right now, those "model" contracts allow for a "buy-back" by governments based on toll revenue projected many decades into the future, he said.
"It's hard for any of us to anticipate what revenue a particular toll road is going to generate a half-century from now," Nichols said. "What we don't want is there to be a situation where the purchase cost is based on speculative future revenues."
Nichols favors a provision that, should a county, city or the state decide to buy the road back from the private company, the price would be based on a "formula" that could be calculated by "any certified public accountant" to allow a good profit or bonus for the investor who took the risk.
"Otherwise, you could have a buyout worth many times than the original cost of the contract," he said.
Nichols also objects to the inclusion of a "penalty clause" in the contract. A local government could be liable to a large penalty - payable to a private developer -- should the governmental entity decide to build a road in the general vicinity of a privately-funded toll road.
"I wanted to make certain that clause wasn't in the model contract, but it's in there," he said. "I'm very worried about what's in those contracts."
Nichols said he would be filing some legislation that would "add some protection" to road project contracts between the state and private firms, possibly as soon as next week.
Howard Roden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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