Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sen. Shapiro: "I'm not sure that what we're looking for is to devolve the responsibility of TxDOT into mini-TxDOTs around the state."

Transportation bill curbs agency's powers

Legislature: Senate plan would increase regional bodies' voice on projects

April 19, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – A far-reaching transportation bill unveiled in a Senate hearing Wednesday would tighten private toll-road contracts and give regional authorities more say over projects in their back yard.

The comprehensive bill – the product of weeks of negotiations among lawmakers and state transportation officials – would curb the powers of the Texas Department of Transportation, which has come under fire for the way it has been awarding toll contracts to private companies.

"Its purpose is to reform the excesses of prior legislation and to fine-tune the various tools available to us in the years ahead," said Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, the bill's author and chair of the Senate transportation committee.

The bill also calls for a two-year moratorium on private tollways, with several North Texas exemptions. The committee unanimously passed a separate moratorium bill Wednesday that already had received House approval.

But perhaps the most attention-grabbing provision in Mr. Carona's bill would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to transfer road-developing powers to the state's 24 metropolitan planning organizations – regional bodies that set priorities for road projects in their region.

State transportation commissioners told lawmakers they would welcome delegating more power to local authorities if it speeds up road projects in a fast-growing state that is running tens of billions of dollars behind with its transportation funding needs.

"The state faces challenges that central government is not prepared to move fast enough to solve," said Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

Critics have accused the Transportation Department of using bully tactics in its pursuit of private toll-road projects, particularly the Trans-Texas Corridor and State Highway 121 in Denton and Collin counties.

Mr. Williamson said commissioners have heard the growing outcry, and that he hopes elements of the comprehensive bill will help mollify those concerns.

"You're changing the relationship between what's perceived as a very strong, some would say overbearing, imperious TxDOT to one of more collegiality and cooperation," he said.

Still, several senators were wary of granting road-implementing powers to planning organizations that lack the Transportation Department's technical and engineering expertise.

"I'm not sure that what we're looking for is to devolve the responsibility of TxDOT into mini-TxDOTs around the state," said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. "I don't know what the ramifications of that might be."

Mr. Carona's bill, which will likely face a committee vote next week, attempts to rectify some of the most controversial provisions in recent private toll-road contracts. The bill establishes procedures for the state to buy back roads after entering into private toll deals and narrows clauses that place limits on competing roads.

But the bill also concedes that toll roads are a key component of the state's future transportation strategy and gives local toll agencies such as the North Texas Tollway Authority more power to bid for toll-road contracts.

"This bill does not significantly alter the path that we're on, which is toll proliferation," said Terri Hall, director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a grassroots San Antonio group that opposes toll roads.

Several North Texas leaders stressed that toll roads – public or private – are needed to relieve the region's congestion.

"Little Elm and its citizens need help today – not two years from now," said Little Elm Mayor Frank Kastner. "It shouldn't take one hour to drive seven miles in our community."

Last week, the House approved a two-year moratorium on private toll-road contracts but exempted North Texas from the ban. On Wednesday, transportation committee members unanimously voted to pass that bill along to the full Senate, but with different moratorium language.

The Senate committee's version of the moratorium exempts a number of individual projects, including State Highways 121 and 161, a tolled-lane project on the LBJ Freeway, the planned Trinity Parkway in Dallas, and two projects in Tarrant County.

Mr. Carona collaborated on the comprehensive bill with Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, who chairs the House transportation committee. Mr. Krusee said Wednesday that the bill could provide a chance to secure more road funding by raising the state's gas tax, which has been stuck at 20 cents a gallon since 1991.

All tax bills originate in the House, where members are reluctant to raise the gas tax. But Mr. Krusee said Wednesday that measures to raise the gas tax according to an index that mirrors inflation may be more palatable if wrapped into the comprehensive bill.

"I think House members really would like to see more oversight of TxDOT, and if you gave that to them, they might stomach an index," Mr. Krusee said. "And that's my intention to try to do that."

House Speaker Tom Craddick said that while he supports the notion of a gas-tax indexing bill, his office hasn't polled members about the issue.

"Two years ago I came out in favor of gas indexing because I think we have a huge need for additional dollars for highways and construction," Mr. Craddick said. "We've got to find some way to do it."

Staff Writer Karen Brooks contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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