Saturday, March 31, 2007

"Some lawmakers are scrambling to kill Senate Bill 1267 ... Nichols isn't backing down."

Local leaders rip into toll road bill

March 31, 2007

Scott Streater
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

A state bill designed to protect motorists from high toll fees could unintentionally hamper efforts to bring Dallas-Fort Worth into compliance with federal ozone standards, a growing number of local leaders say.

The legislation some lawmakers are scrambling to kill is Senate Bill 1267, sponsored by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. The legislation would prevent the state Transportation Department from entering into contracts in which private companies put up billions of dollars to build roads in exchange for permission to charge tolls, in some cases for decades, to recoup costs and make a profit.

Nichols and other lawmakers want to place a two-year moratorium on the contracts because they're concerned that the agreements don't include safeguards to control toll fees. They're particularly concerned about clauses in some contracts that prohibit new roadways that would compete with the tollways.

But state and regional leaders are depending on the private money to pay for a host of transportation projects that, in addition to relieving congestion, are designed to slash ozone-forming pollution from cars, trucks and off-road construction equipment. These projects include expanding railways, building park-and-ride lots and adding high-occupancy vehicle lanes to promote car pools.

The projects are an integral component of a federally mandated clean-air plan that outlines how the region will bring Dallas-Fort Worth into compliance with the ozone standards. The region is required to show that it has the money to pay for these projects, said Thomas Diggs, chief of the federal Environmental Protection Agency's air-planning section in Dallas.

More than a dozen regional leaders traveled to Austin last week to speak out against the bill at a Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee hearing.

Clean-air fallout

'If things get delayed we're automatically out of compliance with our clean-air plan,' Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes said in a recent interview. 'We've got a big problem.'

Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, one of the bill's most vocal critics, said, 'If they put a moratorium on, it will have ripple effects that people just don't realize.'

Nichols and other supporters say the legislation will not kill road projects. They say state and regional transportation officials can use bonds and other resources to pay for the projects.

But the pressure has had some effect.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the transportation panel, said last week that he does not plan to let the bill out of committee.

That will make it difficult for Nichols' bill to reach the Senate floor for a vote, said Harvey Kronberg, an Austin political analyst

The bill, however, is far from dead; it has been co-sponsored by 27 of the 31 senators. What's more, a companion bill -- House Bill 2772, sponsored by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham -- has more than 100 co-sponsors and is moving quickly.

Nichols isn't backing down.

'I think this bill still has lots of life and we do not intend to give up,' he said. 'We are on a mission.'

The bill is the latest wrinkle in local plans to bring Dallas-Fort Worth into compliance with federal ground-level ozone standards by 2010. The region faces severe federal sanctions, including mandatory emission caps that hamper economic development.

Emissions from automobile tailpipes and off-road construction equipment account for 74 percent of ozone-forming emissions in the nine-county region, said David Schanbacher, chief engineer for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

That's why they play a central role in the state clean-air plan for the region.

Texas 121

One proposed project that could be affected by the legislation, and that is crucial to the clean-air plan, is the expansion of Texas 121 in Collin and Denton counties.

The Transportation Department wants to enter into a partnership with a consortium led by Cintra, based in Spain, to build the expansion. The section of Texas 121 would become a tollway, and Cintra would collect tolls for 50 years.

Cintra is offering a package worth $5 billion that includes a $2.1 billion 'concession' payment that can be used on other transportation projects in the region. Regional officials plan to use some of that $2.1 billion for road projects designed to cut ozone pollution.

Nichols said he plans to offer an amendment to his bill that would exempt HOV-lane construction from the two-year moratorium.

But Nichols is convinced that the public-private partnerships are unnecessary and that clean-air projects can get money elsewhere.

'In my opinion, knowing what I know with the dollars involved in those projects, I don't see any problem,' he said. 'They can continue rolling on the plan they're on.'


Ground-level ozone

The federal government regulates ozone levels as a health concern.

At high concentrations, ozone can trigger asthma attacks, stunt lung development in children and aggravate bronchitis, emphysema and other respiratory problems.

Nine counties are in a regional ozone violation zone: Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Johnson, Kaufman, Parker, Rockwall and Tarrant.

Ozone, the main ingredient in smog, needs lots of sunlight and heat to form. Ozone season in Dallas-Fort Worth runs from May 1 through Oct. 31.

Ozone is produced when nitrogen oxides mix with volatile organic compounds. The nitrogen oxides and organic compounds come mostly from automobile exhaust and industry smokestacks. Trees also produce the organic compounds as part of photosynthesis.

SOURCE: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

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