Friday, May 25, 2007

"Senate Bill 792 'is not only full of loopholes, but it makes things worse.' "

Compromise puts brakes on new private toll roads

May 25, 2007

Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers struck a deal Thursday on transportation legislation that includes a two-year moratorium on private company toll roads, although the agreement does not satisfy anti-toll road groups.

House and Senate leaders reached agreement on a compromise plan that likely will reach both chambers for a vote on Saturday.

"What we've got is pretty good but maybe not perfect," said Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, who led the House negotiators.

The compromise legislation, Senate Bill 792, does not affect six road construction projects for the Harris County Toll Road Authority, and it also allows the Dallas-Fort Worth region to proceed with highways already in the pipeline. The moratorium prohibits two private toll road projects in San Antonio.

The bill also would avoid a veto override effort of another transportation bill, HB 1892. Gov. Rick Perry rejected that measure and helped develop the alternative plan.

"This is a really good bill," said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who led Senate negotiators, adding that it creates standards for transferring state-owned right-of-way to local toll authorities.

But anti-toll road groups reacted harshly and warned of consequences for lawmakers who support it.

Senate Bill 792 "is not only full of loopholes, but it makes things worse. (It) allows local authorities the same powers we were trying to take away from" state transportation officials, said Sal Costello, leader of People for Efficient Transportation.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who helped craft the final legislation, said the message in the bill is that "the public is telling TxDOT that 'We don't trust you. We have lost faith in what you are doing.' "

"It's imperative that we send a message to the Texas Department of Transportation that you are not the fourth branch of government — that you work for us and the people of the state of Texas," Pickett said.

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