Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Everybody says it's 'agreed upon,' but I didn't really see any House members in that meeting."

Senate backs deal on transportation


Gary Scharrer, Austin bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Trying to avoid a confrontation with the governor, the Senate voted unanimously Monday for another transportation bill that preserves a two-year moratorium on most private toll roads.

Senate Bill 792 also satisfies Gov. Rick Perry's concerns in another transportation bill sitting on his desk that he plans to veto because, he contends, it transfers too much road-building authority from the state to local communities.

Without an alternative transportation bill, lawmakers likely would try to override Perry's veto, creating a power struggle not seen since 1979.

"There's a lot of blood that would be spilled over a veto override," said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, author of SB 792.

The Houston-area Grand Parkway and a proposed Interstate 69 project from Corpus Christi to Brownsville would be exempt from the moratorium.

The new legislation, which requires approval by the House, would create a new "market valuation" approach for planning and building roads.

"It's a concept to determine the value of a project and what free roads might be built as a result of a toll project," Williams said. "The purpose of a market valuation is to establish a benchmark for what the project is worth and to then determine whether this toll project can also support free roads in the region."

The Texas Department of Transportation and local agencies would have to agree on the terms and conditions for the development, construction and operation of the toll project.

Most of the complaints about private toll roads and the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor project came after state lawmakers approved a complicated transportation bill late in a legislative session four years ago when many members did not fully comprehend their action.

The latest bill could run into a wary House chamber.

"I don't think any of us have seen it. I don't know what kind of reception it will get," said. Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, author of the original two-year moratorium on private toll roads.

The compromise legislation passed by the Senate represents an agreement between senators, the governor and state highway officials.

"Everybody says it's 'agreed upon,' but I didn't really see any House members in that meeting," Kolkhorst said.

Perry called the bill "a good compromise that allows projects important to local communities to go forward, recognizing that Texas is a fast-growing state with real congestion concerns that cannot be put on hold."

"With less than two weeks remaining, I believe lawmakers are capable of sending me a transportation bill that doesn't hinder the state's ability to build needed roads, allows Texas to continue to receive federal highway dollars and ensures that transportation decisions with a statewide impact are made at the statewide level," Perry said after the Senate vote.

The new legislation keeps important components in the transportation bill that Perry plans to veto, such as more acceptable standards for building free roads near private toll projects and for buying back those roads from private companies in the future.

The governor has threatened to summon lawmakers back to a special session this summer if they fail to produce a transportation bill acceptable to him.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News: www.mysanantonio.com

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