Friday, May 18, 2007

Rep. Kolkhorst: "This is a tip of the hat to the grassroots."

Substitute transportation bill glides on in Legislature

Compromise would nix most privately built tollway plans, but not the one in the Houston area


Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — State lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Thursday for a transportation bill that includes a moratorium on most new private toll roads as part of a compromise supporters hope will satisfy Gov. Rick Perry.

The House voted 143-2 for the legislation designed to replace another transportation bill sitting on the governor's desk, which he plans to reject with a veto today, the deadline for doing so.

Demanding a role

Lawmakers have gotten the message after being besieged by constituents angry over private toll roads and proposals to swallow large swaths of private land for the Trans-Texas Corridor.

"The legislators listened to those citizens at home. They were unsure, uncertain, uncomfortable with the way TxDOT was doing the highway projects," Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, said of the Texas Department of Transportation. "Today, the Legislature is saying, 'State agency, we're going to have a part in Texas' future transportation.' "

Smith maneuvered Senate Bill 792 through the House without major changes. The bill must go back to the Senate for agreement before it moves to Perry's desk.

A spokesman for Perry did not return a phone call Thursday night.

The moratorium does not include major highway projects planned for the Dallas-Fort Worth area and also for Harris County, including the Grand Parkway, and the Interstate 69 project in South Texas.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, was a principal player in the push for the moratorium

"We're not comfortable with big, grandiose plans of transportation. We're not comfortable with private equity projects. We're not comfortable with the Trans-Texas Corridor right now," she said. "We want to make sure that we just stop and slow down."

A number of anti-toll road groups formed across the state helped fan the opposition.

"This is a tip of the hat to the grassroots," Kolkhorst said.

Perry's staff and highway department officials helped shape the compromise bill designed to satisfy his objections with the transportation bill on his desk. He said that bill transfers too much road-building authority to local communities.

The new legislation would create a "market valuation" approach for planning and building roads. That concept would determine a benchmark for the toll project's worth and whether it could support free roads in the region.

Most of the complaints about private toll roads and the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor project came after state lawmakers approved a complicated transportation bill late in a legislative session four years ago when many members did not fully comprehend their action.

Rep. Nathan Macias, R-Bulverde, voted against the new bill, he said, "because it was brought so quickly to us. We didn't have enough time to digest this whole new way of doing business."

Grand Parkway exempted

Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, opposed the bill after colleagues rejected her amendment to make the Houston-area Grand Parkway part of the moratorium.

"If it comes to me getting in front of the bulldozers, I'm going to do it," she said, adding that she was serious.

Her constituents need more time to contemplate the impact of the parkway, she said while pleading for help in "a David-and-Goliath battle."

"It's important for us to remember the people that it affects. This affects real people in real homes, in real neighborhoods," Riddle said.

But exempting the Grand Parkway from the moratorium was part of an agreement with TxDOT and the governor's office, Smith said.

Riddle lost her case, 118-22.

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