Friday, May 25, 2007

Kolkhorst: "I believe in my heart that there is a moratorium."

Toll road agreement reached

House, Senate passage seem likely

May 25, 2007

by Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The careening vehicle that has been this legislative session's toll road overhaul appeared to pull into the garage about 4:35 p.m. Thursday.

At that moment, Republican state Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, after spending several moments huddling on the floor with Sen. Tommy Williams, sponsor of Senate Bill 792, affixed his signature to a compromise version of the bill, and the two shook hands.

"We've got a deal now," Williams, R-The Woodlands, said about an hour later. "This is really going to move transportation issues forward, particularly in large metropolitan areas."

The deal was among 10 House and Senate members assigned to work out differences in versions of the bill passed by both houses.

Williams said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, had decided not to sign the final version because of concerns about amendments added in the House by his longtime rival, Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. But Williams did not anticipate Shapleigh's position causing a problem with final approval by the Senate.

Final approval of the bill by both houses probably will not occur until at least Saturday because of drafting and printing delays and rules requiring that the final bill sit idle for 24 hours.

Williams said Gov. Rick Perry, whose staff worked closely on the final negotiations, should be no barrier to the bill becoming law.

"I think this is something that he'll sign," Williams said.

Perry vetoed a similar bill, House Bill 1892, on May 18, and SB 792 was the Legislature's attempt to address some of his concerns.

SB 792 no longer includes an amendment the House added to ensure that no legs of the Trans-Texas Corridor tollway flanking Interstate 35 will be built over the coming two years. Perry had told several legislators that he would veto the bill until that provision was removed.

S B 792 is the distillation of dozens of bills filed this session by legislators dissatisfied with how Perry and the Texas Department of Transportation dove headlong over the past four years into pay-as-you-drive highways. Perry and agency officials, looking at a backlog of highway needs and insufficient gas tax revenue, have turned to toll roads as a solution.

Lawmakers from Houston and Dallas, where toll roads have existed for at least 20 years, were more concerned about the Transportation Department's growing use of long-term toll road leases with private companies. They wanted to assure that local toll road agencies would get first shot at building and operating turnpikes, rather than private operators, and SB 792 accomplishes that.

The bill also contains provisions that would ban the signing of more private toll road contracts (albeit with about a dozen exceptions) over the next two years and then extend the ban beyond August 2009, again with some exceptions. And for those private toll road contracts that occur under those exceptions, the bill would place limits on some contract provisions to better protect the state's financial position.

Its direct effect on Central Texas would be that the Transportation Department would not be able to, in effect, "sell" the three state-owned tollways that have opened over the past six months.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, had held out for a couple of days for an amendment she sponsored that the House added to SB 792 extending the moratorium on new comprehensive development agreements to so-called facilities agreements. The state intends to build the tollway twin to I-35 in segments, signing facilities agreements for each segment under an existing comprehensive development agreement.

She decided Thursday to accept the bill without the amendment. Kolkhorst said the past five months of legislative attacks on the Perry toll program have sent a message that no new highway projects on the Trans-Texas Corridor should occur for the next two years at least.

"I believe in my heart that there is a moratorium," Kolkhorst said. "The intent is there."

Besides, she said, SB 792 is not the only opportunity for those such as herself who would prefer to end private toll road deals and the Trans-Texas Corridor plan in particular. Under the bill, there will be a nine-member committee examining toll road policy over the next few years. And the Transportation Department over the next two years will undergo the "sunset review" required of all state agencies once every 12 years.

"We have three bites at the apple," Kolkhorst said.; 445-3698

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