Thursday, March 08, 2007

"Many lawmakers question if Texas drivers are being sold down the road."

Effort to limit toll roads gains steam

Legislature: Bill would set two-year moratorium on private partnerships

March 8, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Texas' push toward private toll roads encountered more opposition Wednesday among state lawmakers.

A bill to halt more private toll road deals for two years gained steam in the Texas House a day after a majority of senators expressed their support for the measure. In addition, a key state senator has asked for more information concerning the $2.8 billion State Highway 121 deal recently announced by state officials.

Dozens of state representatives have signed on to the bill that would place a moratorium on any public-private contracts such as the one for Highway 121. The winning bidder, Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA, agreed to pay $2.1 billion in upfront money and $700 million over the life of the 50-year contract for the rights to operate the Highway 121 toll road in Collin and Denton counties.

The moratorium bill's House sponsor, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said a state auditor's critical assessment of toll road financing – coupled with the Highway 121 contract's upfront payment and generous profit margin – has led many lawmakers to question if Texas drivers are being sold down the road.

"I don't think it's too much to ask to take two years to look at contracts that will govern our grandkids 50 years from now," she said.

The bill is aimed at "alarming contracts" being signed for toll roads, lawmakers said. It would eliminate noncompete clauses that could prevent the state from building new roads or maintaining existing ones near a new toll road. It also would put some limits on tolls to ensure they remain reasonable.

Under the proposal, a private company could not collect revenue from or operate a tollway. Nor could a toll project entity such as the North Texas Tollway Authority sell a toll road to a private interest.

In the Senate, at least 25 of the 31 senators have signed onto the bill that is being carried by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. Before winning election last year, Mr. Nichols served on the Texas Transportation Commission – the five-member board appointed by Gov. Rick Perry that oversees highway policy in the state.

"When a former commissioner of the Texas Department of Transportation and head of the subcommittee on the Trans-Texas Corridor introduces this kind of legislation, it makes a very huge statement that we need to slow down," said Ms. Kolkhorst.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, has asked for more information about another potential bid for Highway 121. In a letter Friday, Mr. Carona asked the North Texas Tollway Authority to compile what would amount to an informal bid for the Highway 121 project. That bid would be used solely for comparison purposes, he said.

The tollway authority will consider Mr. Carona's request at an upcoming board of directors meeting, agency spokeswoman Donna Huerta said.

The tollway authority originally was a bidder for the Highway 121 toll road but dropped out after it reached an agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation about which agencies would build a host of future toll road projects.

Mr. Carona said his request will not affect the state's final negotiations with Cintra but could help lawmakers on future projects.

"We as a committee can analyze what the proposal of NTTA would have been versus that of Cintra," he said. "All we could do would be to analyze the competing bids and try to understand whether the taxpayers received a good bid, and use the results of our analysis for legislation affecting future contracts."

Staff writer Terrence Stutz in Austin contributed to this report. ;

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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