Friday, May 11, 2007

Sen. Nichols: "If it takes a special session to get this right, I'm all for it."

Governor, lawmakers try to work out agreeable toll road legislation

Meanwhile, the threat of a special session looms.

May 11, 2007

By Mark Lisheron
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

At the same time both sides in a state transportation fight were expressing optimism Thursday that a compromise could be reached, each was assessing differently the risks of losing billions of dollars in federal funding for Texas highways.

The main point of contention between lawmakers and Gov. Rick Perry is a bill passed by the House and Senate that would limit toll road contracts with private companies.

A day after Perry threatened to call for a special session on the question of private toll roads, his spokesman Robert Black said lawmakers and the governor are "very enthusiastic" about making a deal.

"We don't have a lot of time, but we have enough time," he said.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate's Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said Thursday that he and other negotiators might reach an agreement as soon as early next week.

"We're working in good faith with the governor's office to reach a consensus," Carona said, adding that he hoped to avoid the embarrassment of a veto of the legislation.

But in spite of all the good feeling, there continued to be different interpretations of House Bill 1892, a bill that sailed through the House and Senate and that Perry promised to veto.

The Legislature has until Wednesday to get a transportation bill acceptable to the governor on his desk before Perry is required to decide what to do with HB 1892, or face the possibility of a veto and special session.

The bill calls for a two-year moratorium on private toll road deals. The bill also makes a concession to allow Harris County to proceed with toll road projects independent of the state Department of Transportation.

Sidestepping the state Department of Transportation for any highway project could threaten all federal funding for state highways, according to a letter dated May 10 to the department from James D. Ray, chief counsel for the Federal Highway Administration.

Ray said the bill seems to allow local entities to award toll road contracts to private companies without a competitive bidding process. It also seems to pit public and private road building concerns against one another, he said.

Ray's letter came a day after a letter from Mary E. Peters, the U.S. secretary of transportation, to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. That letter said HB 1892 would not affect the state's eligibility for federal dollars if the state carried out the bill's provisions without violating federal law. Ray's letter made almost identical assertions but then followed with five pages of specific concerns.

Rep. Mike Krusee, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, who has been in negotiations to come up with a more palatable transportation bill, said legislators were so eager to slap a moratorium on toll roads that they ignored problems with the bill.

Krusee, R-Williamson County, a proponent of privately funded toll roads, is less optimistic than either Perry or Carona.

"I think it's 50-50 that we can work something out," Krusee said.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, a member of the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said Texans should not be hurried into a world of private toll roads.

A former member of the Texas Transportation Commission, Nichols called the correspondence from the Federal Highway Administration a scare tactic for concessions the Legislature should not be willing to accept.

"If it takes a special session to get this right," Nichols said, "I'm all for it."

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