Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"All the carpetbaggers will find their way into El Paso, pushing (private toll) projects, because the rest of the state has said, "No, thank you.' "

Some want El Paso exempt from toll road moratorium


By Brandi Grissom
El Paso Times
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- El Paso's fight over toll roads has made its way into the Capitol, where local lawmakers and officials disagree over whether the city should be excluded from a two-year statewide ban on private toll projects.

"Communities that have toll roads have decided to push for a moratorium," said El Paso County Judge Anthony Cobos, who was in Austin today. "There's no reason for El Paso to be excluded."

Reacting to public outcry over toll roads, legislators are considering two separate bills that would put a two-year stop on government contracts for private toll-road operations.

The House bill would prevent El Paso's new Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority from entering into such contracts for toll roads. The Senate bill, though, would exempt El Paso from the ban.

Cobos and state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, both members of the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the city should be included in the private toll moratorium.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, though, said the ban could slow development of
much needed roads in the rapidly growing city.

The House last week overwhelmingly approved a measure that would implement a statewide moratorium and calls for a study of private toll road deals.

"I'm very concerned about us entering into bad contracts," said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who sponsored the measure.

Legislators have expressed concern over contracts that allow private companies to profit from toll roads for up to 50 years.

The agreements have also included stiff penalties for state and local governments that build free roads that compete for traffic with the toll roads.

Legislators were worried, too, that toll rates on privately run roads would skyrocket in the future.

"Citizens of state of Texas deserve that we take a very close look at these contract terms," Kolkhorst said. "That's a half a century we have to deal with."

A Senate committee has approved a similar measure, but that bill would exclude El Paso County from the moratorium. It would also exempt Houston and North Texas.

Shapleigh said he made sure that El Paso would not be included in the Senate's ban proposal. With the coming of 23,000 new troops to Fort Bliss and their families, he said El Paso needs as much flexibility as possible to negotiate contracts to build critical new roads.

"We need to fund our projects," Shapleigh said. "We have too much growth to slow down."

Rep. Pickett, though, said the moratorium would not hamper local projects.

He said the regional mobility authority could even build toll roads under the ban. The only restriction, he said, would be that private companies could not contract with the authority to build the toll roads.

Exclusion from the moratorium, he said, would be worse for El Paso.

"All the carpetbaggers will find their way into El Paso, pushing (private toll) projects, because the rest of the state of Texas has said, "No, thank you,' " Pickett said.

Cobos said El Paso should take a signal from other areas of the state experiencing a backlash over toll road proposals.

"We probably need to learn from mistakes that other counties have made," he said.

The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee will consider the House moratorium bill today.

Shapleigh, who is on the committee, said he would try to add the El Paso exemption to the House measure.

© 2007 El Paso Times: www.elpasotimes.com

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