Thursday, April 05, 2007

Carona: "It does little more than make a political statement."

Defanged private tollway ban passes

Senator says real action on tollways likely to begin in two weeks.

April 05, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

A two-year ban on long-term toll road leases with private companies, pockmarked with exceptions and thus largely symbolic, cleared a Texas Senate committee Wednesday on a unanimous vote.

However, the more meaningful action on toll roads should begin in the next two weeks, when a large bill addressing a wide range of concerns over tollways will be introduced in the Senate.

The much-publicized moratorium bill by Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, Senate Bill 1267, has an excellent chance of passing the Senate, given that 29 of 31 senators have either signed on as co-sponsors or voted for it in committee.

But despite 111 House co-sponsors, it could run aground in that body.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, supports private toll road contracts.

"With the time it covers, and the amendments, it does little more than make a political statement," said John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

Carona, who voted for the bill in committee despite saying in recent days that he doubts its worth, said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, presiding officer of the Senate, had urged him to give the bill a vote.

But the bill was largely defanged on its way to committee passage. It exempts two road projects in Tarrant County that would add toll lanes to existing highways: the proposed Trinity River Parkway toll road through downtown Dallas and all of El Paso County.

The moratorium, were it passed and signed by Gov. Rick Perry (unlikely, given his condemnation this week of the concept), might or might not apply to the Texas 121 project northeast of Dallas.

The Texas Transportation Department has announced that a consortium led by Spanish toll road concessionaire Cintra would build and run that 26-mile road for 50 years, the second such contract in Texas. But if the law were to take effect before a contract is signed, then the ban would apply to Texas 121.

That road aside, Carona said, given the exceptions and the early status of Trans-Texas Corridor work, there are basically no other pending toll road projects in the state that would be affected by SB 1267.

But Nichols, a former Texas Transportation Commission member who in recent months developed concerns about the state giving away too much in toll road leases, said his bill needs to pass.

"We don't have the luxury of time," Nichols said. "If we wait too long, these contracts will be signed, and Texas will be trapped in agreements that will hold our transportation system hostage for the next half-century."

Carona and Krusee, along with Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson and Perry's office, are in the final stages of drafting a large bill likely to roll back some of the toll road powers granted to the Transportation Department in recent session.

Carona, though not ready to disclose the substance of the bill, said the draft negotiated with Krusee probably will be shared with legislators next week and then get its first hearing in his committee April 18.

That would be about five weeks before the session ends.

"In the current atmosphere of suspicion, I think it would be a huge mistake to pass this bill with just a few short days to review it," Carona said.; 445-3698

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