Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"We need to make sure we're not rushing out and getting a payday loan."

Toll-road freeze exempts North Texas

Legislature: House backs 2-year moratorium on private deals, but outcry spares 121 plans

April 11, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – The drumbeat to rein in toll roads got a lot louder Tuesday when the House overwhelmingly endorsed a two-year freeze on deals to build private pay roads – except in North Texas.

On a 134-5 vote, House members tentatively approved a measure to halt private toll contracts and create a panel to examine the implications of privatizing state roads.

The lopsided vote – cast by many of the same lawmakers who gave such powers to the Texas Department of Transportation four years ago – showed a determination to reconsider state transportation policy. It also was a swipe at how the Transportation Department has been awarding toll-road contracts.

"This is us tapping the brakes, looking before we leap into contracts that last 50-plus years," said Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who wrote the moratorium measure.

If the bill clears a routine final reading today, it would move to the Senate, where transportation committee members have approved a similar bill.

Although North Texas projects are largely unaffected, Ms. Kolkhorst said the bill would apply to the Trans-Texas Corridor, a mammoth statewide highway that would parallel I-35.

The moratorium was a last-minute addendum to a separate transportation bill that gives Texas counties and regional toll-road agencies more authority over rights of way and access to state highways. That bill passed on a 123-17 vote.

The initial proposal Ms. Kolkhorst offered Tuesday would have applied to the entire state. But after an outcry from North Texas legislators, members agreed to spare all projects that fall within the boundaries of the four-county North Texas Tollway Authority.

Time for a 'deep breath'

Members of the North Texas delegation argued that a moratorium would cripple efforts to ease the fast-growing region's traffic congestion and improve its air quality.

"You can't just put the brakes on all our projects," said Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Southlake.

Lawmakers said the two-year hiatus would allow a "deep breath" to address mounting concerns about toll-road deals, including the long length of some contracts, future toll increases, provisions to buy back roads and clauses that place limitations on competing roads.

"We need to make sure we're not rushing out and getting a payday loan," Ms. Kolkhorst said.

Criticism of the state's toll-road policies has been escalating since February, when the Transportation Department announced a 50-year deal with Spanish-based Cintra to build and oversee the Highway 121 project in Collin and Denton counties. That deal includes a $2.1 billion upfront payment that could be spent on other traffic projects in the region.

In a separate hearing Tuesday, embattled Texas transportation commissioners told lawmakers that private toll-road contract deals are a critical tool to revamp Texas' aging, cash-strapped highway system. It was the commissioners' first public rebuttal since a crowd of hundreds blasted the state's toll-road policies at a Capitol hearing last month.

Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, told House transportation committee members that the state's booming population and dwindling funds for roads demand a creative approach to solve looming traffic problems.

Legislators have been unwilling to raise gas taxes, which typically pay to build and maintain roads. The state's gas tax has been 20 cents a gallon since 1991. Several bills are pending that would raise the gas tax to better reflect inflation.

Mr. Williamson said the Transportation Department is aiming to relieve congestion statewide by selling private companies the rights to toll new "roads of convenience" – such as the Trans-Texas Corridor and State Highway 121. Those projects also will help pay for improvements to established "roads of necessity" such as I-35E, LBJ Freeway and farm-to-market roads.

"We think the path we're on is based on common sense," Mr. Williamson said.

Commissioners and Transportation Department officials said the recent debate over private toll roads has been clouded by "myths" that some of the deals' provisions harm taxpayers.

For example, Mr. Williamson said, shortening the life of the Highway 121 contract to 30 years from 50 would have lowered Cintra's $2.1 billion upfront payment, which will be used to fund other much-needed road projects throughout North Texas.

"What we know reasonably is that the area is congested now, the air quality is poor now," Mr. Williamson said. "The opportunity to make our roads safer is limited. And we don't have the cash flow to build 121 ourselves."

First crack at projects

Another provision approved by House members Tuesday gives the North Texas Tollway Authority first dibs on toll-road projects in North Texas. Critics maintain that the Transportation Department favored Cintra in awarding the Highway 121 contract, and lawmakers have asked the tollway authority to consider submitting a belated bid.

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, peppered commissioners Tuesday with questions about whether the tollway authority was pressured to stay out of the bidding process for Highway 121.

Commissioner Ted Houghton said tollway authority officials passed on Highway 121 years ago, before the state began embracing private toll-road contracts.

Tollway authority directors will meet today to discuss whether to reconsider a bid for the Highway 121 project.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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