Monday, March 12, 2007

"Nichols made it clear he still supports toll roads, even private ones. But not in the way the state is about to do them."

Nichols throws former peers a toll curve

March 12, 2007

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Robert Nichols couldn't have been more shocking if he'd shown up on the floor of the Texas Senate in a silk muumuu and pink boa.

Now that I have your attention . . .

You might not be familiar with Nichols, given that the Republican from the East Texas burg of Jacksonville is serving his first term in the Senate. But people in transportation certainly know Nichols from his eight years on the Texas Transportation Commission, when there wasn't a more dogged defender of building toll roads.

In December 2004, Nichols shared a dais with commission Chairman Ric Williamson and Gov. Rick Perry, all of them fairly bursting with triumph as they announced that Cintra-Zachry, in return for 50 years of toll revenue, had promised to build 300 miles of Trans-Texas Corridor tollway paralleling Interstate 35. AND pay the state $1.2 billion.

This was what toll roads could bring, they said. Philosophically, it seemed you couldn't fit a Kleenex between Williamson and Nichols.

In June 2005, Nichols, 62, quit the commission to run for Senate. When he won, the assumption was that Nichols would be the Transportation Department's legislative champion.

The first hint something was afoot came March 1, when Nichols hit Williamson with tough questions about private toll roads at a committee hearing. Then last week's stunner: Nichols, with 24 Senate co-sponsors, was filing SB 1267 to put a two-year moratorium on private toll road contracts.

Say whaaa?

Nichols made it clear he still supports toll roads, even private ones. But not in the way the state is about to do them.

"I'm an engineer," Nichols told me, "and engineers believe the world is held together by tiny pieces. And if you disrupt those tiny pieces, it starts a chain reaction that can have negative consequences."

Nichols reminded me that at the 2004 press conference, the commission and Cintra-Zachry said their contracts would have no non-compete clauses, which would force the state to pay Cintra-Zachry compensation if some new free roads cut toll revenue. Expansion of I-35 would be exempt, at least in the pending Texas 130 contract.

Nichols, before he left the commission, fought to control what the state might have to pay if it decides to take back that Texas 130 section. Nichols wanted a set formula, but Cintra-Zachry wanted the nebulous "fair market value."

The pending contract has the non-compete clause and fair market language. If those provisions aren't taken out, he said, future Texans could end up "having to pay the piper."

Nichols, mind you, asked for a moratorium on private toll roads, not a ban. A cooling-off period, he said, might stop angry legislators from scuttling toll roads entirely. He doesn't want that to happen.

So, no muumuu. A boa, around the Transportation Department's wrists? Maybe.

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