Saturday, April 28, 2007

Sen. Nichols: "Texans must decide if roads should be built for the benefit of taxpayers or private shareholders."

Texas Legislature

Battle lines drawn over toll road ban

April 28, 2007

Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — A strong Senate vote Friday likely will force a showdown between Texas lawmakers and Gov. Rick Perry over toll roads and transportation issues.

The state Senate voted 27-4 on a transportation bill that includes a two-year moratorium, opposed by Perry, on private company toll roads and other highway-building restrictions, which could trigger his veto.

If so, lawmakers are ready to try to override his veto in a power battle not seen since 1990, when the Legislature failed to override a Gov. Bill Clements veto of a school finance bill.

"Unfortunately, there is a fundamental disagreement between the Legislature and the governor about the future transportation policy of our state," Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said. "This bill is the last chance we have to address that."

Once the House passes the Senate's bill, which is expected early next week, Perry said he would look at it but added that he opposes any effort 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 Legislature claims Texas needs a moratorium on private financing of toll roads, yet seeks to exempt every privately planned toll road on the drawing board from their moratorium," Perry said. "The Legislature states that we need to pause and reconsider public-private partnerships to build roads, yet expands this concept by granting this exact same authority to local toll road authorities all over the state."

Several transportation bills are pending, but this one would give county and regional tollway authorities more road-building authority and would require the Texas Department of Transportation to provide state-owned right-of-way to the public tollway authorities and free access to state highways.

It also would reduce private company toll road contract lengths from 70 years to 40, ease some of the restrictions in those contracts and provide more information about the Trans-Texas Corridor project.

Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, author of the House version, said he would accept changes to his bill. Smith wants to send the bill to Perry next week, giving lawmakers time to try to override a veto before the Legislature adjourns May 28.

Both Smith and Williams expressed hope Perry would not veto the bill.

"Obviously, it's a very popular piece of legislation from the Legislature that will be going over there," Smith said.

Only two of 150 House members voted against it and only four of 31 senators. The dissenting senators said they support the moratorium on private company toll roads but balked at changing state transportation policy by giving more power to local groups such as the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

"I always worry about emotional responses to big issues like transportation," Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said.

"We are acting almost like a lynch mob, and we are not thinking about the implications of what we are doing," Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, warned.

But most legislators have soured on the state's transportation department and Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor plan that relies heavily on private company toll roads and long-term contracts involving hundreds of billions of dollars in profit for those companies.

"Texans must decide if roads should be built for the benefit of taxpayers or private shareholders," said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, a former state transportation commissioner and the main architect for the moratorium.

"This is a major victory in our efforts to protect Texans from private toll road deals that would hamstring our transportation system for the next half-century," Nichols said. "A two-year moratorium will give an appropriate cooling-down time to evaluate the terms of these contracts before they cost Texans billions in penalties."

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, called the state Department of Transportation "a renegade, runaway agency" whose actions have outraged Texans.


It's rare for the Legislature to muster the two-thirds majority vote in each chamber to override a veto.

• It happened last in 1979 on a bill allowing Comal County to block hunting and fishing regulations.

• Records show Gov. W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel and Texas lawmakers collided often during the 1941 legislative session, with lawmakers overriding 10 of the governor's vetoes.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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