Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sen. Carona on moratorium: “It fixes nothing.”

Senate votes for moratorium on private toll roads


Gary Scharrer Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — The Texas Senate voted unanimously Thursday for a two-year moratorium on private company toll roads — although stopping those controversial projects won't solve the state's bulging highway needs, a leading lawmaker warned.

The state House has already supported a similar measure in a nearly unanimous vote, reflecting considerable public angst over the possibility of transferring public assets to private companies.

A moratorium on private toll roads passing in both chambers means it's “more likely to stick,” said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, author of the Senate's moratorium and a former member of the Texas Transportation Commission.

“You have House clarity. You have Senate clarity,” Nichols said. “There's an obvious will by this body to take the time to study private equity contracts before we lock up many (road) contracts of our transportation system that cannot be corrected until our children and grandchildren are past retirement.”

Gov. Rick Perry, however, opposes the moratorium, and Nichols conceded that a veto could kill the bill should the measure reach Perry's desk.

The bill, which exempts several highway projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, would create a citizen's committee to study private equity toll roads and issue a report before the 2009 legislative session.

“It fixes nothing,” Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Chair John Carona, R-Dallas, said before voting for the moratorium.

Carona and others have warned that the state doesn't have the money to build the $80 billion worth of highways it will need during the next 20 years.

Texas has not increased its 20 cent per gallon gasoline tax since 1991. The tax revenue falls far short of meeting the state's road-building agenda.

Nichols also noted that lawmakers have siphoned off up to $15 billion from the state's highway fund over the past 20 years to pay for other state needs.

Carona is working on a comprehensive transportation bill that attempts to address the major objections in proposed 50-year contracts with private toll road companies. They include expensive buy-back provisions and costly penalties for building new roads near the toll projects.

A recent study showed private toll roads could net investors nearly $300 billion over the next 50 years for portions of one project.

The moratorium also is a reaction to a 156-page transportation bill that rushed through the Legislature four years ago in less than 20 days. Lawmakers didn't fully understand the legislation that resulted in the controversial contracts.

“I believe that privatizing our highways and selling them to the highest bidder is bad public policy,” Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, who sponsored the transportation bill four years ago.

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