Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Texas is really a major battleground for a new technique of financing public infrastructure."

Tollway bill will affect nation, pair says

Dallas County: Critics of private roads praise proposed halt of deals

April 18, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The debate at the state Capitol over whether to privatize Texas toll roads will reverberate nationally for years to come, a pair of private toll-road critics told Dallas County commissioners Tuesday.

"Texas is really a major battleground for a new technique of financing public infrastructure," said economist Pat Choate, Ross Perot's vice presidential running mate on the 1996 Reform Party ticket.

Last week, state House members handily approved a bill that would halt controversial private toll-road contracts for two years, although North Texas would be spared from the ban. That bill is scheduled for a Senate committee hearing today.

Dr. Choate and Corridor founder David Stall said state legislators are wise to reconsider the state's 50-year deals with private companies to build toll projects such as the Trans-Texas Corridor and State Highway 121 in Collin and Denton counties.

"We're locking into a long-term agreement where we can't possibly anticipate all the ramifications," Mr. Stall said.

Dr. Choate and Mr. Stall were received warmly by Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield, who invited them to Tuesday's meeting. But other commissioners said the presentation broke little new ground.

Commissioner John Wiley Price told the two men they were "preaching to the choir" and stressed that state transportation policy is largely controlled by the Legislature and the governor.

"I can appreciate all this, but at the end of the day, you're telling us stories that probably this choir already knows," Mr. Price said.

Mr. Mayfield said North Texas should not be exempted from a two-year moratorium on private toll roads because the state-chartered North Texas Tollway Authority can ably handle the region's needs.

The tollway authority said last week that it intends to submit a late bid for Highway 121 and also hopes to land contracts for five more future road projects.

But Commissioner Mike Cantrell, who sits on the 40-member Regional Transportation Council, said it's critical that North Texas keep the option of private toll-road contracts, which include upfront payments that can be spent immediately on other transportation projects in the region.

"This region is keyed in on that upfront money," he said.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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