Thursday, May 10, 2007

"Legislators are responding to their constituents. And I think they are firmly fixed in concrete on this issue."

Perry threatens special session on toll roads

Governor says fixes still possible for bill limiting state powers on toll roads, private toll road contracts

May 10, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Gov. Rick Perry is threatening to call a special session on transportation issues this summer if the Legislature doesn't address problems he sees in the 58-page toll road bill resting on his desk.

"The good news is we still have time to fix it, and we are working toward that," Perry said Wednesday. "If not, I have no other option as the leader of this state than to bring the Legislature back until we address these issues."

A two-year ban on most private toll road contracts, added to the bill in its later stages, is not the main problem. Perry said, in fact, that he would "sign the moratorium bill tomorrow" if the Legislature would bring him a bill with only that in it.

Rather, Perry is troubled by provisions in House Bill 1892 that would give local toll agencies such as the Harris County Toll Road Authority priority in building tollways in pockets of the state and put new constraints on toll road contracts between the state and private companies.

Taken together, those provisions could limit the number of such agreements, knocking out a prime leg of Perry's transportation policy.

"This bill has huge problems," said Perry, who is poised to veto the bill.

Filed by state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown at the behest of Harris County, the bill stipulates that the state could not charge the county for highway rights of way the state owns. Harris County and the state have been at odds over the past year after the Texas Department of Transportation said the county would have to pay more than $1 billion for rights of way along three highways it wants to widen and convert into toll roads.

Smith said legislators "are responding to their constituents. And I think they are firmly fixed in concrete on this issue."

But state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said House and Senate members are negotiating on ways to address concerns about HB 1892, including Perry's. He predicted a solution within a few days.

"I'm not canceling my vacation plans just yet," Carona said.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, would not say whether he thought a compromise could be reached.

"The governor's going to do what the governor's going to do," he told reporters.

The legislation, aside from the moratorium and the provisions for local toll road agencies, also imposes limitations on any long-term toll road leases the state might sign with private companies in the future. It would reduce from 70 years to 40 years the maximum length of such arrangements, limit so-called noncompete constraints on building nearby free roads, and require terms for the state to buy back such roads that would probably lower the price.

The bill has at least one problem specific to the Dallas-Fort Worth area that even supporters acknowledge is a mistake, and efforts are under way to attach repair language to other legislation.

Perry has until May 18 to sign or veto HB 1892 or let it become law without his signature. The bill passed in the Senate 27-4 and 139-1 in the House, vote counts that — if they held — would be well above the two-thirds needed to override a veto.

The Federal Highway Administration, in two letters to state officials over the past month, has said the state could lose federal highway money because of provisions in HB 1892.

Perry, asked about how the bill specifically might hurt the state, deferred to his staff for details. But Michael Behrens, executive director with the Texas Department of Transportation, exhaustively addressed what he sees as the bill's flaws in a four-page, single-spaced letter May 4 to state Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson.

"Allowing subdivisions of local government to take over the state highway system challenges the framework of federal statute and puts the state in violation of federal laws," Behrens wrote of the provisions for local toll agencies. Of the buyback provisions, which would base the price on what companies spent on a project rather than on what they might see as profit in the future, Behrens wrote that a company would probably pay the state a lower upfront concession payment than under current law or perhaps drop its bid for the road completely.

That in turn might threaten projects such as TTC-69, Perry spokesman Robert Black said, referring to a section of the Trans-Texas Corridor still in the early planning stages that would run from the Rio Grande Valley to Northeast Texas.

So, will a weary Legislature be moved by the threat of a lost summer and Perry's dark predictions about the bill's consequences? State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, the only House member to vote against HB 1892, said the prospect was the subject of much discussion Wednesday.

"They'd rather not have to come back in the summer in order to address a Houston problem," Krusee said.

The Legislature has already stood up to the governor on a number of issues this session, pressuring him to appoint a conservator to oversee the scandal-plagued Texas Youth Commission and overturning his order requiring immunizations for teenage girls for the human papillomavirus. But with hundreds of pieces of legislation headed his way over the next month, Perry is not without options.

"The governor has a number of tools at his disposal to get the Legislature's attention," Krusee said.; 445-3698

Additional material from staff writer Mark Lisheron.

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