Sunday, May 27, 2007

Rep. Pickett: "It was just a cry from the public in Texas wanting to be heard."

Toll roads bill goes to Perry


By Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau
The El Paso Times
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- A wide-ranging transportation bill that would put a two-year ban on private toll agreements is on its way to Gov. Rick Perry after the House approved the measure Saturday.

Voting 127-19, the House passed the measure, which the Senate approved Friday. The bill is a compromise between legislators and Perry to replace a similar bill the governor vetoed.

Perry had threatened to call a special session to deal with transportation issues if legislators made good on their threat to override his veto.

Legislators are trying to clamp down on private toll projects after public outrage during elections last year.

"It was just a cry from the public in Texas wanting to be heard," said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who was on the committee that developed the compromised bill.

All five El Paso state representatives voted for the transportation bill.

The measure would prohibit private toll road projects for two years. It exempts from the ban most major projects already underway in urban areas, including those in El Paso, but it would require local officials to approve any private agreements and would limit the length and cost of the contracts.

During the two-year ban, lawmakers would appoint a committee to study private toll contracts and report back to the legislature in 2009.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, who was also on the committee, said limiting private tolls was good policy, but he said Texas must still find ways to finance transportation.

He said the Texas Department of Transportation was $46 billion short of what it needs to build new roads.

"We still face the core challenge: Where do we raise the money to build new highways?" he said.

While both Pickett and Shapleigh agreed that private toll roads should be limited, they fought over several measures in the bill that would affect control over local transportation projects.

Pickett had added to the transportation bill proposals he said were meant to preserve projects the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization already approved.

Shapleigh said Pickett was trying to destroy the newly created Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority, or RMA.

Most of Pickett's measures remain in the legislation, including one that would allow members of the RMA to come from outside the city limits. Another of his measures would put road proposals not yet approved by the planning organization under the private toll moratorium.

A measure that would have required a public vote on large transportation projects and one that would have allowed the county to enter into contracts to build international toll rail bridges came out of the bill.

Krista Moody, spokeswoman for Perry, said he would review the bill in its final form before deciding whether to sign or veto it.

Perry has until June 17 to veto bills, though Pickett said he hoped the decision would come sooner.

"Everyone would like to see him sign it tomorrow," he said.

Brandi Grissom may be reached at;(512) 479-6606.

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