Thursday, May 03, 2007

"Landmark legislation for putting the needs of Texas drivers above the pockets of private shareholders."

House gives toll-road freeze final OK; bill heads to Perry

Legislature: He's hinted at veto, but lawmakers able to override

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

A two-year freeze on private toll-road contracts is on its way to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.

House members voted, 139-1, Wednesday to accept Senate amendments to a bill that would halt private-sector toll-road deals for two years. But the complex bill exempts most major North Texas toll projects already in the works. Mr. Perry has strongly hinted that he will veto the measure.

Both chambers overwhelmingly passed the bill in an effort to rein in the state's controversial toll-road policies. The Texas Department of Transportation has drawn fire for its deals with private companies to build and run certain toll roads for 50 years.

The toll-road moratorium was tacked on to a House bill originally designed to grant Harris County officials more power over local toll projects. Senators added a raft of amendments last week that would step up legislative oversight of private toll deals and limit them to 40 years, among other provisions.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, hailed Wednesday's vote as "landmark legislation for putting the needs of Texas drivers above the pockets of private shareholders."

Mr. Perry, who has championed private toll roads as a solution to the state's growing traffic congestion, now has 10 days to consider a veto.

Last week, Mr. Perry said in a prepared statement that he opposes policy "that shuts down road construction, kills jobs, harms air quality, prevents access to federal highway dollars and creates an environment within local government that is ripe for political corruption."

Senators approved the bill last week but recalled it Monday to exempt several North Texas toll projects from the new 40-year cap, including the State Highway 121 project in Collin and Denton counties. The final bill cleared the Senate, 30-1.

With such strong majorities in favor of a moratorium, lawmakers would be able to override Mr. Perry's veto if they chose to, something that hasn't happened to a Texas governor since 1979.

Mr. Perry may have another toll-road moratorium bill to consider before the session ends. On Tuesday, the House transportation committee approved a separate, simpler moratorium bill authored by Mr. Nichols.

That bill still has to clear the full House. But the governor could find it more palatable since it has fewer amendments curbing the state's toll-road powers.

Perry spokeswoman Krista Moody said Wednesday that the governor would rather not have to choose between moratorium bills.

"The governor would prefer to have no toll-road moratorium," Ms. Moody said. "He prefers to build roads."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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