Friday, May 25, 2007

"I believe this is something the governor will sign."

House, Senate to weigh toll-road compromise

Negotiators optimistic that Perry will back reworked bill

May 25, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – After a week of edgy negotiations, a group of House and Senate lawmakers reached a deal Thursday on a bill that would rewrite the state's toll-road policies.

If approved by both chambers over the weekend and signed by Gov. Rick Perry, the bill will stave off a showdown between the Legislature and governor over Texas' transportation future.

Lawmakers still have the option of attempting to override Mr. Perry's veto of an earlier transportation bill. But if that happens, the governor has threatened to call a special session on transportation.

Key players involved in this week's negotiations said they believe the reworked bill will avoid an end-of-session meltdown.

"I believe this is something the governor will sign," said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, the bill's author.

The proposal places a limited two-year freeze on private toll road contracts. Most North Texas toll projects are exempt from the ban.

The measure also limits such contracts to 50 years, creates a new formula for the state to buy back toll projects, establishes a process to gauge a road's market value and gives local authorities the first crack at projects in their region.

This week's negotiations focused heavily on House Amendment 13, which would prevent private toll roads from being built in separate projects called "facility agreements."

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said she added the amendment to prevent the Texas Department of Transportation from using flexible semantics to dodge the freeze and build parts of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Grassroots activists opposed to the controversial corridor project unleashed an all-out push this week to keep the amendment, bombarding the Capitol with faxes, e-mails and phone calls.

But Ms. Kolkhorst ultimately signed a compromise bill that removed her amendment.

"I've talked to a lot of legal experts, and I believe that we have a moratorium on every highway except for those that are listed as carve-outs," Ms. Kolkhorst said. "If TxDOT chooses to proceed under some other name, I think that most Texans would be not only disappointed but up in arms."

Transportation commissioners voiced concerns this week that the proposed ban on facility agreements would stall a planned freight rail line running from Fort Worth to Mexico.

Nine of 10 members on the bill's House-Senate conference committee signed off on the compromise, Mr. Williams said Thursday. Only Sen. Eliot Shapleigh , D-El Paso, declined to sign out of concern for how certain amendments would affect projects in his region.

The full House and Senate are expected to vote on the compromise bill Saturday.

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