Friday, May 25, 2007

Hall: Voters will respond at election time to the so-called 'moratorium'

Freeze on private toll roads ready for vote


Gary Scharrer Austin bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers struck a deal Thursday on transportation legislation that includes a two-year moratorium on private company toll roads, although the agreement does not satisfy anti-toll road groups.

House and Senate leaders reached agreement on a compromise plan that likely will reach both chambers for a "yes" or "no" vote on Saturday.

"What we've got is pretty good but maybe not perfect," said Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, who led the House negotiators.

The moratorium prohibits private toll roads on the Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 projects in San Antonio.

The bill also would avoid a veto override effort of another transportation bill, HB 1892. Gov. Rick Perry vetoed that measure and helped develop the alternative plan.

But anti-toll road groups reacted harshly to the compromise and warned of consequences for lawmakers who support it.

Senate Bill 792 "is not only full of loopholes, but it makes things worse. 792 allows local authorities the same powers we were trying to take away from TxDOT," said Sal Costello, leader of People for Efficient Transportation.

"It's simple. If we don't get what we deserve, heads will roll. A number of our so-called representatives will be fired in the upcoming election," Costello said.

"We'll invest the resources to make that happen."

He was particularly upset that lawmakers stripped an amendment that specifically added so-called "facilities agreements" to the moratorium.

Critics believe that Texas Department of Transportation officials will simply call the temporarily banned private equity toll road agreements another name: facilities agreements.

But. Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, author of the "facilities amendment," said TxDOT would get dragged into court if the agency tries to thwart the moratorium by using loopholes to get around it.

"It's a strong bill, with or without the amendment, if you think about how far we've come in the last year and a half," said Kolkhorst, who helped lead the fight for a moratorium on private toll roads.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who helped craft the final legislation, said the message in the bill is that "the public is telling TxDOT that 'We don't trust you. We have lost faith in what you are doing.'"

Terri Hall, founder of Texans Uniting for Reform & Freedom, called SB 792 "a counterfeit moratorium because this governor snuck in a way to charge us 'market rate' on all tolls projects from now on" that will result in the highest possible tolls.

"It does us no good if 281/1604 are in the private toll moratorium if they can still use our public toll authority to do the same thing," she said.

"Our victory comes in the power of us sending a shot across the bow to this governor and TxDOT that their tricks are no longer under the radar."

She accused lawmakers of selling out and predicted that voters will respond at election time.

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