Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"Many House lawmakers applauded when the bill was passed. The only dissenting vote was cast by Rep. Mike Krusee."

Private toll road moratorium sent to governor

May 2, 2007

The Associated Press
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — The House gave final approval Wednesday to placing a two-year moratorium on private toll road contracts, sending the bill to Gov. Rick Perry and setting up a showdown over the future of the state's transportation policy.

Perry had urged the Legislature to reject the freeze but has stopped short of promising a veto.

The House approved the measure 139-1, showing it has broad enough support that lawmakers could vote to override the governor if he tries to kill it. The Senate approved the bill 27-4 last week.

The Legislature can override a veto with a two-thirds vote of both chambers, but they must be in session to take that vote. The session ends May 28. Perry has 10 days to decide to veto the bill or let it become law, giving lawmakers plenty of time to react to a veto.

Perry has said the state's overburdened highway system needs public-private toll road partnerships to keep pace with the state's growing population and to attract business and jobs.

He also said the bill could jeopardize federal highway money, an argument some lawmakers dispute.

But growing opposition to Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor — a combined toll road and rail system that would whisk traffic from the Oklahoma line to Mexico — have made some lawmakers nervous about the project. Cintra-Zachry, a Spanish-American consortium, plans to build the corridor in exchange for getting to operate the road and collect tolls.

Residents and lawmakers complain drivers will become hostages to the private companies, forced to pay increasingly hefty tolls.

Among the key supporters of the moratorium was Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who was a vocal advocate for the corridor when he was a member of the Texas Transportation Commission. He even testified before lawmakers in 2005 that it is the best way to solve the problems of increasingly congested highways.

But Nichols has said he did not anticipate that the state would sign decades-long contracts handing over toll road operations to private companies. He and other lawmakers particularly opposed provisions of the contracts that restrict competition and make it hard for the state to end the deals early and "buy back" the toll road.

"This is landmark legislation for putting the needs of Texas drivers above the pockets of private shareholders," Nichols said.

But Perry has served notice he is seriously considering vetoing the bill that could derail his vision of corridors of toll roads crisscrossing the state that he first unveiled in 2002.

"I will review this bill carefully because we cannot have public policy in this state 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," Perry said last week.

The moratorium includes exceptions for a few projects across the state. Those projects would be subject to scrutiny by the attorney general's office, the state auditor's office and the Legislative Budget Board.

The proposal also tightens controls on the comprehensive development agreements, reducing their maximum duration from 70 years to 40 years and allowing the state to buy back a project.

Additionally, the legislation gives local authorities more power over toll projects in their areas.

Many House lawmakers applauded when the bill was passed. The only dissenting vote was cast by Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, a Perry ally on toll roads and chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

© 2007 The Associated Press:

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