Friday, May 18, 2007

"The citizens want to take a look at how we're building private entity toll roads and ... make sure it's the right way to go."

Toll-road ban includes exemptions


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- Maybe the second time's the charm.

After three hours of tweaking, the Texas House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a second bill calling for a two-year moratorium on most new privately built and operated toll roads after Gov. Rick Perry threatened to veto a similar measure sitting on his desk.

"The citizens want to take a look at how we're building private entity toll roads and ... make sure it's the right way to go," said Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, the bill's sponsor in the House.

What happened?

After considering a flurry of amendments, the bill passed 145-2. Reps. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, and Nathan Macias, R-Bulverde, voted against it.

The bill had passed the Senate on Monday. The measure retains the moratorium on private toll roads but carves out more exemptions in parts of the state.

Several North Texas lawmakers strongly lobbied to make sure no amendments would jeopardize projects already under way in the region.

At one point, Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, told Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, that the wording in her amendment could be misinterpreted to include North Texas projects that were already in the works. Kolkhorst insisted those projects were exempt from her amendment, but Truitt wasn't buying that explanation.

"Unless you can stand there and tell me unequivocally that these changes don't affect projects in our area ... I'm going to ask you why you can't keep your nose out of our business," Truitt said.

Kolkhorst later revised the amendment and it was adopted.

Several lawmakers relayed serious concerns from constituents with Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, especially the specter of having major roads around the state privately owned for decades.

"This is a tip of the hat to the grassroots," Kolkhorst said. "The populists said, 'We don't like what you're doing.'"

The problem

Perry said he wouldn't sign the original version of the bill because it contained language that would hamper North Texas officials trying to go forward with much-needed projects such as the North Tarrant Express and improvements to Texas 121 between downtown Fort Worth and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

Vic Suhm, director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, said the House version of Senate Bill 792 accomplishes everything the North Texas delegation had hoped for and will endanger no ongoing Tarrant County toll projects.

"It has a lot of amendments in it, but nothing deadly for us," Suhm said.

What's next?

Lawmakers are rushing to ensure that Perry receives the bill today, when he is expected to veto the original toll road bill. Lawmakers hope to send him this revised bill and formally recall the original bill.

Suhm predicted that the bill would pass the Senate today in time for Perry to avoid vetoing the first bill.

Staff writer Gordon Dickson contributed to this report.
Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695