Monday, May 14, 2007

"Frankly, I'm not thrilled with this, but the Governor insists on this for financing hot transportation projects."

Not all Senators singing 'Kumbaya' on new toll road compromise language

Carona and Williams may have tough sell with Nichols opposed

May 14, 2007

Harvey Kronberg,
Kronberg's Quorum Report
Copyright 2007

A compromise hashed out over the weekend to avoid a possible summer session on transportation received a harsh review this morning from Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville).

Nichols, a former state transportation commissioner, said that a floor amendment to SB 792 (the Senate companion to HB 1892) goes too far in giving metropolitan planning organizations more of a role in toll projects. He told fellow members of the Senate Transportation & Homeland Security Committee that he was expecting a compromise that fell somewhere between his no frills moratorium legislation and the value-added moratorium bill sitting on the Governor's desk. That legislation includes primacy language for the Harris County tollway authority as well as carve outs for a number of toll projects already in progress.

The new SB 729, though, inserts language creating a new mechanism under which local tolling authorities or regional mobility authorities can have right of first refusal on a toll project following an independent appraisal of the value of the project.

The amendment includes what was described as a demonstration project under which this market valuation process will be used on the Grand Parkway project in the Houston area.

That earned the disapproval of Nichols who said the floor amendment establishes new powers for MPO's and goes well beyond what was envisioned either in his bill or in HB 1892.

Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) took strong exception to Nichols' statements, saying that Nichols was making inaccurate statements about the floor amendment. Nichols, arms crossed, said that he had read the latest version of the floor amendment until 1 a.m. last night and that all his assertions were based on language in the amendment.

SB 792 author Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) pointed out that the language on the Grand Parkway project is temporary and would expire in two years. The right of first refusal language would sunset after four years.

Williams indicated that he wasn't a fan of making the Grand Parkway project a demonstration of the new market valuation tool, but conceded that it was necessary to reach the larger compromise. "Frankly, I'm not thrilled with this, but the Governor insists on this for financing hot transportation projects. What we've done is set up the process, try it out for a couple of years with this project," he said. What happens afterward would be up to the Legislature, he said.

Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) raised more questions about the market valuation process, focusing on what would happen if the involved parties disagree on the findings of the independent market valuation. She wondered if such disagreement could in fact kill the project. On that score, the answer was far from clear.

SB 792 has been sitting on the Intent Calendar since early April so today's hearing was more of a courtesy than a discussion that could lead to formal committee action. Following this morning's 40-minute discussion, it was quickly apparent that this newest compromise language has spurred a whole new set of concerns that will have to be worked through if lawmakers hope to get comprehensive toll road legislation through both chambers in this session's dwindling days.

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