Friday, April 27, 2007

"There is so much money to be made... that there is .... a real potential for malfeasance, for theft, for violations of fiduciary responsibility."

Texas Senate OKs bill limiting toll road contracts

April 27, 2007

Associated Press
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — The Texas Senate passed a bill making major changes to the state's transportation policy today, potentially setting up a showdown with Gov. Rick Perry over the future of private investment in toll roads.

One of the most attention-grabbing aspects of Sen. Tommy Williams' bill is a two-year moratorium on contracts that allow private companies to operate toll roads and collect revenue from them.

The Senate already has passed a moratorium bill, but it is languishing in a House committee. The bill approved today already was approved by the full House. If that chamber accepts the Senate's changes, as the House sponsor said he will suggest, the bill could end up on Perry's desk next week.

That would give lawmakers plenty of time to override a veto by the governor, who has ardently insisted that Texas needs to continue using public-private partnerships to build toll roads if it wants to keep attracting big companies and jobs.

In a sharply worded statement, Perry said he will carefully review the bill.

"We cannot have public policy in this state 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," he said.

The bill deals with "comprehensive development agreements," a relatively new tool meant to let the Texas Department of Transportation complete road-building projects more quickly and cheaply by using a single contract for both the design and construction tasks.

Those agreements have attracted the attention of multinational consortiums willing to pay large sums up front for the right to operate roads and pocket the tolls for decades to come.

That has outraged residents and lawmakers who say drivers will become hostages to the private companies, forced to pay increasingly hefty tolls.

"The concern is whether or not ... we're going to have an opportunity if those contracts are bad to fix it in our lifetime or our children's lifetime, and I'm concerned we will not," said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

The moratorium includes exceptions for a few projects across the state. Those exempted projects would be subject to scrutiny by the attorney general's office, the state auditor's office and the Legislative Budget Board.

The proposal also tightens controls on the comprehensive development agreements, reducing their maximum duration from 70 years to 40 years and allowing the state to buy back a project.

Additionally, the legislation gives local authorities more power over toll projects in their areas.

Toll road foes applauded the bill's passage and urged the governor not to veto it.

"We don't want to pay what amounts to extortion money through oppressively high tolls in the hands of foreign companies just to go to work," Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom founder Terri Hall said in a statement.

The bill was approved by a 27-4 vote, with most of the opponents complaining that the Legislature was moving too quickly on such an important piece of legislation.

"We are acting almost like a lynch mob," said Sen. Steve Ogden. "We are not thinking about the implications of what we're doing."

Ogden, a Republican from Bryan, said the proposal didn't include protections to ensure local governments act responsibly in toll road deals.

"There is so much money to be made by selling our roads to the private sector that there is almost inevitably a real potential for malfeasance, for theft, for violations of fiduciary responsibility," he said.

But Williams, R-The Woodlands, said lawmakers had to move the bill forward immediately because they were running out of time to beat a veto. Once the governor receives a bill, he has 10 days to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

The Legislature can override a veto with a two-thirds vote of both chambers, but they must be in session to take that vote. The session ends May 28.

"I think there's a fundamental disagreement between the Legislature and the governor about the future of transportation policy in the state," Williams said. "I'm trying to give us a chance to address those concerns."

Veto overrides are rare. The last one occurred in 1979.

The transportation bill is HB1892.

© 2007 The Associated Press:

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