Saturday, April 28, 2007

TxDOT is called "a renegade runaway agency that is out of control."

Bumpy ride for tollway plans


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- The Texas Senate passed its second bill this session creating a two-year moratorium on privately funded toll roads Friday, a sharp rebuke of Gov. Rick Perry's plan to solve the state's transportation problems.

Senators voted 27-4 to approve the bill, which would prevent the creation of toll roads made by public entities contracting with private companies.

The Senate passed a similar bill earlier, but that version appears dead in the House. The version approved Friday easily passed the House this month by a vote of 137-2.

The bill's Senate sponsor, Republican Tommy Williams of The Woodlands, said he hopes to send the bill back to the House as quickly as possible so that any differences can be reconciled by next week. The clock is ticking because if Perry vetoes the measure late in the session, lawmakers will have adjourned before having an opportunity at an override.

A two-thirds majority in both chambers would be needed to override a veto.

"I'm not spoiling for that fight," Williams said during the floor debate. "[But] I think there's a fundamental disagreement between the governor and the Legislature over the future of transportation in this state."

Perry, in an e-mailed statement, derided the bill as hypocritical for exempting current private toll roads.

"I will review this bill carefully because 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," Perry said.

Not a single senator voiced opposition to the general idea of a two-year moratorium on private toll roads, signifying how far support has eroded for Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor plan.

Little support remains in the Legislature for arrangements that could allow a Spanish company to build and operate toll roads in parts of Texas for up to 50 years and significantly raise toll rates -- the centerpiece of Perry's proposal.

The bill drew more than an hour of debate as a handful of senators expressed concern that it didn't go far enough in certain areas, including giving too much freedom to Harris and several other counties to ignore the moratorium.

"We are acting almost like a lynch mob and we are not thinking about the implications of what we are doing. So what I would ask you to do today is not vote on this bill and then take the time to do it right," said state Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, who eventually voted against the bill.

Supporters stressed that Friday's vote was the last chance for lawmakers to pass any kind of a moratorium on toll roads if they wanted to have time to override a potential veto.

Perry will have 10 days from receiving the bill to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

In keeping with other toll road bills passed this session, exceptions were made for various projects under way in Dallas-Fort Worth, largely because of aggressive lobbying by North Texas lawmakers who said those projects are too far along and are vital to relieving congestion.

"We're in gridlock on those current highways," Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, told the Senate.

For the projects that are given exceptions in the bill, lawmakers approved limiting the maximum length of a private toll road contract to 40 years, down from 70 years under current law, and blocked most "noncompete" clauses a tollway operator can include in a contract.

Perry has not yet said whether he will veto this bill or one passed earlier in the week by both chambers that would overturn his executive order requiring girls across the state to receive a new vaccine that would protect against most cases of cervical cancer.

That bill also has a good chance of being immune to a veto from Perry because of strong support in the Legislature.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he believes that privately financed toll roads will play an important role in Texas' transportation initiatives but that lawmakers should pursue such plans cautiously.

"By enacting a reasonable two-year moratorium on privately financed toll projects, while excluding projects currently on the drawing board, the people of Texas and their elected representatives can take a serious look at these projects to make sure they actually work and benefit all Texans," Dewhurst said in an e-mailed statement.

Several senators identified the concerns over Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor plan as the No. 1 issue of the last election cycle.

Voters and lawmakers are "scared to death that our roadways are being sold out from under us," said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, conceded that the bill was "not perfect" but heartily endorsed it as a good approach to a complicated issue.

He said the public will be happy to see lawmakers weakening the authority of the Texas Department of Transportation, which he described as "a renegade runaway agency that is out of control."

Staff writer John Moritz contributed to this report.

Local projects to proceed

A two-year moratorium on privately funded toll roads that passed the Senate on Friday would exempt projects under way in North Texas. Local lawmakers were careful to carve out the exemptions to ensure that current plans to meet the growing congestion problems in the area can go forward.

Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695

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