Texas legislature attempts to launch another massive transportation bill...
Senate bill also trims agency powers, boosts regional authority
April 27, 2007
By JAKE BATSELL
The Dallas Morning News
A Senate panel approved a comprehensive transportation bill Thursday that would trim the powers of the Texas Department of Transportation, especially when it comes to private toll-road deals.
The Transportation Reformation Act, which now goes to the full Senate, would step up legislative oversight of controversial private toll-road contracts. Critics charge that the state's recent agreements to privatize certain toll roads for 50 years amount to selling public roads to the highest bidder.
Among other provisions, the massive bill would limit private toll deals to 40 years and would establish a process for the state to buy roads back if a contract is terminated. It also contains a two-year moratorium on private toll contracts, which the House and Senate already have approved in separate bills while exempting most North Texas projects.
The bill also grants regional authorities increased power over toll projects in their areas. However, legislative staffers yanked a provision in the original bill that would have allowed the Transportation Department to transfer road-developing powers to the state's 24 metropolitan planning organizations. That provision, several senators said last week, ran the risk of creating 24 "mini-TxDOTs."
The bill's author, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said that with a month to go in the legislative session, full passage won't be easy but is still possible.
"It certainly has enough time to pass," said Mr. Carona, who leads the Senate transportation committee. "The question won't be whether we have time; it will be whether there is the will to pass it."
Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration sent state transportation officials a letter this week saying that legislation curbing the Transportation Department's authority could affect Texas' eligibility for federal highway funds.
"We must be able to look to the state transportation department as the entity ultimately responsible to us for complying with all of the federal requirements," wrote James D. Ray, the agency's chief counsel.
Staff writers Christy Hoppe and Terrence Stutz in Austin contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co
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