Thursday, May 24, 2007

The hassle from El Paso

El Paso dispute could bog down key roads bill


By Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau
El Paso Times
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- A dispute over who gets to build roads in El Paso emerged as a sticking point Wednesday in negotiations over a must-pass statewide transportation bill.
If the lawmakers don't agree on the transportation bill, Gov. Rick Perry has promised to bring them back for a special session. The regular session is scheduled to end Monday.

House and Senate lawmakers are working with Perry to compromise on legislation that would put a two-year stop on agreements allowing private companies to build and operate toll roads.

Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, said the primary bone of contention between the House, Senate and Perry was a measure that would prohibit private contracts for building facilities.

But he said El Paso legislators on the negotiating committee -- state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and state Rep. Joe Pickett -- were also still haggling over measures in the bill that would affect road-building in the city.

Pickett last week made several changes to the transportation bill that would affect road projects in El Paso.

Shapleigh said Pickett's measures were meant to destroy the newly created Ca mino Real Regional Mobility Authority and could slow down local road projects, including the Inner Loop. That project is a make-or-break deal for U.S. Department of Defense officials who agreed to transfer 23,000 soldiers to Fort Bliss.

"We have been shortchanged highway funds for years," Shapleigh said. "To build highways, to fund bridges, we need a mobility authority."

Pickett, an ardent critic of the regional mobility authority, said his amendments were aimed at protecting transportation plans already approved by the planning organization. He said they would not diminish the mobility authority or slow road projects.

One of Pickett's measures would require an election before the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority could approve a project worth $200 million or more. Pickett said he would agree to bump that amount up to include projects worth $400 million or more.

"If there is to be a major, major toll project, I think El Pasoans should get to vote on it," Pickett said.

He said the vote would only apply to Regional Mobility Authority projects, and since the Inner Loop is not one, an election would not affect that plan.

Another controversial proposal Pickett added to the bill would allow the regional mobility authority to appoint members from outside El Paso, including New Mexico.

Shapleigh said he didn't want New Mexicans making decisions on mobility projects for the El Paso region. They have their own road authority, he said.

Under the bill, El Paso, like most other urban areas, would be exempt from the two-year moratorium on private toll agreements. Pickett added a measure that would only exempt from the moratorium projects the El Paso Municipal Planning Organization has already approved.

Legislators continued to negotiate the transportation bill Wednesday night, and Rep. Smith said a deal must be reached by today.

Pickett and Shapleigh said the El Paso measures would not derail passage of the transportation bill.

"This bill will pass," Shapleigh said.

Brandi Grissom may be reached at; (512) 479-6606.

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