Monday, March 19, 2007

A quick passage moratorium on private toll road contracts with the state might not occur.

Toll freeze unlikely to scuttle Texas 130 deal

Contract negotiations are well along, and even legislative critic of private toll roads says Central Texas road might escape proposed moratorium

March 19, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

A moratorium on private toll road contracts with the state, an idea gaining momentum in the Legislature, probably would not scuttle a pending contract to extend Texas 130 from Mustang Ridge to Seguin, officials say.

As of late last week, a veto-proof majority of both houses of the Legislature had signed on as co-sponsors of bills that would create a two-year ban on such contracts. Language in the pending Texas 130 tollway contract between the state and road developer Cintra-Zachry prompted freshman Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, a former Texas transportation commissioner, to file the moratorium legislation.

The Cintra-Zachry road would complete a 90-mile bypass, all with tolls, of the congested Austin-San Antonio Interstate 35 corridor. The first 49 miles, under construction by a different company since 2003 and to be operated by the state, will be complete by the end of the year. The northern 29 miles of that 49-mile section opened late in 2006.

The Legislature will finish its business May 28, and a two-thirds vote in each house (and the governor's signature) can make a law take effect immediately. So if the legislation were to move quickly, even a gubernatorial veto could be overcome before June.

However, it appeared last week that quick passage of the moratorium might not occur. Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said he is in negotiations with toll supporter state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County to create catchall legislation that would include a private road freeze as well as other policy changes suggested by toll critics like Carona. That final legislation might not include the moratorium. And even if it does, it could include an exception for Texas 130, the only private tollway agreement so far down the contract path.

The second such deal, for the Texas 121 tollway in Collin County (again involving Cintra, a Spanish toll road operator), was announced just two weeks ago and would be much more vulnerable to a legislative freeze.

"It's quite possible that Cintra might not be the bidder that moves forward on that project," Carona said of Texas 121. "But it's my opinion that Texas 130 will continue as it has been executed. I think they are too far down the line."; 445-3698

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