Thursday, March 15, 2007

"A moratorium signals that problems are more than merely superficial."

Bumps in the road

Area lawmakers don't like where Perry plan headed

March 15, 2007

By Carroll Wilson
Wichita Falls Times Record News
Copyright 2007

Gov. Rick Perry's plan to let private companies lay concrete and steel on as much as 4,000 miles of Texas soil has lost traction with Wichita Falls area legislators.

Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls and Rep. David Farabee are co-sponsoring bills that would stop the Trans-Texas Corridor plan dead in its tracks for two years.

Estes, who along with Perry is a Republican, said he supports the governor's plan in principle, but not the direction in which it's headed.

Farabee, a Democrat, said he originally liked the TTC idea, but he, too, now has problems with it, particularly the way the plan is being managed by leaders at the Texas Department of Transportation.

Far more than a mere handful of Texas' 31 senators have signed on to a bill that would stop the process of contracting for construction of privately funded toll roads for two years.

So far only a few members of the House are co-sponsors of the companion measure, one of whom is Farabee.

Estes wants the contracting process stopped because, "There are too many unanswered questions, and recent revelations of poor accountability require the Legislature to step in."

The Texas Auditor's Office recently concluded that even though TxDoT was moving quickly to sign contracts with developers, "There is a lack of reliable information regarding projected toll-road construction costs, operating expenses, revenue and developer income."

The contracts are to be for 50 years for each segment, and a master plan states that the total cost could be more than $105 billion, one of the numbers the auditor said can't be determined.

Farabee said he has a problem not just with the cost uncertainty but also with how the state's power of eminent domain should be used.

Sen. Robert Nichols, a former state transportation commissioner and author of the bill, put his own case this way:

"Imagine if you could make a deal with the state to build a store in your hometown, use the state's power of eminent domain to take the land needed for your store and then get the state to agree to refrain from building another store in your hometown for 50 years," he said in a Web posting. "Now, imagine your hometown was projected to have double-digit population growth. While it may be hard to fault any business for pursuing such a deal, the taxpayers would hold elected officials accountable."

Right now, Texas has few toll roads. Today's interstate system was started in the mid-1950s with mainly federal dollars.

The state's population is expected to double in the next 20 years, Estes said, so "to say we need no more infrastructure would be disastrous. But we've got to get it right.

"I'm a strong proponent of toll roads," Estes said, "but the devil is in the details."

For example, he said, "if you're going somewhere on the ocean, and you're off one or two degrees you can miss an entire continent. So you have got to get it started right."

Besides the length of contracts and the lack of risk analyses, the senator said he is also concerned that foreign investors will gain more than they should.

Farabee indicated that the fact that Nichols, who once was a strong supporter of the toll-road and TTC ideas, is now pushing for a moratorium signals that problems are more than merely superficial.

The Trans-Texas Corridor would not take a route through the Wichita Falls area, but would be built through parts of Wise County near the Montague County line.

© 2007 Wichita Falls Times Record News:

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