Saturday, April 28, 2007

'The Last Great Hope' this session to restrict private toll road contracts passes


Toll limits clear key Senate hurdle

HB 1892, which has support in both chambers, could reach Perry's desk in time for lawmakers to override a veto.

April 28, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

A proposal some senators called "the last great hope" this session to restrict private toll road contracts passed the Texas Senate on Friday 27-4.

If the House quickly agrees to House Bill 1892 with the substantial changes made by the Senate, then the bill would reach Gov. Rick Perry's desk in time for the Legislature to overcome a possible veto.

The deadline for this probably would be May 14, legislators say, but HB 1892 author Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, said he agrees with the Senate changes.

The full House will have to vote on the changed bill, but Smith said he hopes to have the bill to Perry by the end of next week.

Perry has 10 days to veto a bill if there are that many days or more left in a session when he gets it. With the Legislative session ending May 28, passage by May 14 would leave lawmakers a few days after a veto to reverse it.

The bill, originally written to give the Harris County Toll Road Authority first shot at toll roads in that area, now includes a two-year ban on private toll road contracts, with certain exceptions. For those exceptions in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso, the bill limits what the state might have to pay tollway operators for competing roads or to buy back a toll road should it become profitable.

The bill also shortens the maximum length of such contracts from 70 years to 40 years. And it would prevent the state or other Texas toll road agencies, during that two-year period, from handing over existing toll roads (such as Texas 130 east of Austin) to private operators.

Smith's legislation, after spending most of the session out of the limelight, in the past few days has become the vehicle of choice for legislators to strike back at the Texas Department of Transportation for aggressive toll road policies that have angered voters.

Another large bill, HB 1929, crafted by the chairmen of the House and Senate transportation committees along with representatives of Perry and the Transportation Department, had been expected to play this role. But it emerged from its first committee only Thursday and is given little chance of passage.

Dozens of smaller bills have been filed this session to roll back powers given to the Transportation Department in 2003 and 2005, tools that the agency has enthusiastically embraced.

But virtually all of those bills, if they managed to pass the Senate, have run aground in the House Transportation Committee, chaired by Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County.

Krusee, who was out of the country and unavailable for comment Friday, is a leading advocate of the toll road push.

"So many bills have gone into a hole in the House Transportation Committee from which no bills are escaping," said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, Senate sponsor of HB 1892. "There's a fundamental disconnect between the Legislature and the governor on the future of transportation in this state. This bill is the last chance we have to address that."

That chance appears to have turned on a quiet decision Feb. 27 by House Speaker Tom Craddick to send HB 1892 to the House County Affairs Committee, rather than Krusee's committee. The bill was essentially Smith and Williams' attempt to intervene on the behalf of the toll road authority in a dispute it was having with the state Transportation Department.

The state agency, which would prefer to open up new Houston-area toll roads to the private sector and perhaps reap billions in upfront payments, had told Harris County that it wanted more than $1 billion for state-owned right of way.

The toll road authority, used to getting such lands from the state at no charge for its toll roads, rebelled.

The bill went April 10 to the House floor, where Krusee and others tried unsuccessfully with points of order and amendments to derail or defang it.

An amendment that did pass, however, attached the two-year toll road moratorium to the bill, which then passed with a veto-proof 123-17 vote. The Senate vote Friday is likewise comfortably above the two-thirds vote needed to override Perry.

In a statement, Perry did not say if he would use his veto power, but the statement read: "I will review this bill carefully because we cannot have public policy in this state that shuts down road construction, kills jobs, harms air quality, prevents access to federal highway dollars, and creates an environment within local government that is ripe for political corruption."

The key, for many senators Friday, was the inclusion of the moratorium on private toll road contracts. The state Transportation Department has been in the vanguard of states granting long-term leases to private companies, most of them based overseas so far, to build and operate roads for 50 years or more.

In the two contracts awarded so far — only one has been signed, for the southern 40 miles of Texas 130 southeast of Austin — Spanish toll road operator Cintra and its partners had agreed to cover all engineering, right of way and construction costs and then give the state substantial sums on top of that.

In return, the partnerships would operate the roads and would keep most toll revenue until after 2060.

"I'm scared to death, and I think a lot of citizens are scared to death, that our roads are being sold out from under us," said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, a former Texas Transportation Commission member who authored the original moratorium bill this session.

The Transportation Department contends that such contracts are the key to overcoming a huge funding shortfall for Texas roads and rail, especially given the Legislature's 16-years-and-counting disinclination to raise the state's 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax.

But legislators, responding they say to intense pressure from constituents during last year's election, have said they worry that profits from toll roads that might have gone to building more Texas roads would instead go to corporate stockholders. That those companies are foreign has stoked that concern.

The few senators who spoke out against HB 1892 Friday, aside from complaining about such complex legislation being heavily amended on the fly, highlighted an emerging concern among at least some rural legislators.

They fret that big Texas cities, as HB 1892 dictates, would keep huge sums of toll road profits (or payments from private companies) to spend on urban and suburban highways, while leaving rural areas with only diminishing returns from the gas tax.

"There are a lot of rural (legislators), who represent a lot of highway miles in this state, that worry about this bill's effect on their constituents," said Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, one of the four senators who opposed the bill.; 445-3698

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