Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Growing opposition to Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor...has made some lawmakers nervous"

Senate approves moratorium on private toll roads

April 19, 2007

The Associated Press
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — The Texas Senate on Thursday approved a bill placing a two-year moratorium on private toll road contracts and creating a panel to review the terms of those agreements.

Gov. Rick Perry had urged the Legislature to reject the freeze. He said the state's current transportation system, which involves public-private partnerships to build toll roads, needs to continue if Texas is to keep attracting big companies and jobs.

But growing opposition to Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor — a combined toll road and rail system that would whisk traffic from the Oklahoma line to Mexico — have made some lawmakers nervous about the project. Cintra-Zachry, a Spanish-American consortium, plans to build the corridor in exchange for getting to operate the road and collect tolls.

Sen. Robert Nichols, the moratorium's sponsor, supported the corridor when he was a member of the Texas Transportation Commission. He even testified before lawmakers in 2005 that it is the best way to solve the problems of increasingly congested highways.

But Nichols said he did not anticipate that the state would sign decades-long contracts handing over toll road operations to private companies. The Jacksonville Republican particularly opposes provisions of the contracts that restrict competition and make it hard for the state to end the deals early and "buy back" the toll road.

"It never occurred to this legislative body or to the communities or, at the time, to the transportation commission, that they would be used to do more than just to build and accelerate these projects," Nichols said.

The bill includes several exemptions for projects in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso. But senators said it still sends a strong message.

"I believe that privatizing our highways and selling them to the highest bidder is bad public policy," said Sen. Steve Ogden, a Republican from Bryan.

The bill now heads to the House, where it faces an uncertain future. An identical House bill by Republican Rep. Lois Kolkhorst has not gotten a public hearing in the transportation committee, which is chaired by a major supporter of privatized toll roads.

But Kolkhorst was able to attach the language to another bill that was overwhelmingly approved by the House last week. That bill also was approved by the Senate transportation committee and could be debated by the full Senate soon.

Nichols spokeswoman Alicia Phillips said he plans to move forward with his moratorium while trying to get the other bill through the Senate.

Perry spokesman Ted Royer said the governor is open to ideas on how to improve transportation in Texas without private financing.

"But doing nothing for the next two years won't do anything except make existing traffic problems much worse," he said.


The private toll road moratorium bill is SB1267

© 2007 The Associated Press:

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