Friday, May 11, 2007

"They had better make sure that the citizens are on board with it, because there's going to be a price to pay at the ballot box."

Lawmakers near deal on transportation bill


Associated Press
Copyright 2007

Lawmakers inched closer to a compromise on Friday on a sweeping transportation bill that Gov. Rick Perry has threatened to veto, with negotiators on both sides saying only a few details remained unresolved.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said he was optimistic that they could work out the final points Friday.

"It's the details," added Rep. Mike Krusee, a Republican from Round Rock who chairs of the House Transportation Committee. "Even after you come to an agreement in principle, you still have to put it on paper."

The bill lawmakers sent Perry earlier this week would put a two-year moratorium on most new privately financed toll road projects and give local authorities more power over toll projects in their areas. The legislation also would tighten controls on comprehensive development agreements, used in contracts for private-public road building.

Perry says parts of the bill could delay or derail highway projects and jeopardize federal transportation funding. He said Wednesday that he is willing to call a special session if he vetoes the legislation and lawmakers override him.

Lawmakers hope to push the compromise bill through both the House and Senate first thing next week so it can be on the governor's desk before Wednesday. That would mean the Legislature would still have the ability to override a veto if the governor took that route.

Local leaders from North and South Texas complained Friday that many of the provisions in the bill would jeopardize road building projects in their areas.

Grady Smithey, secretary and co-founder of the Dallas Regional Mobility Coalition, criticized a provision in the bill that would reduce the maximum length of comprehensive development agreements from 70 to 40 years.

Comprehensive development agreements, or CDAs, are a relatively new tool meant to let the Texas Department of Transportation complete road-building projects more quickly and cheaply by using a single contract for both the design and construction tasks.

Those agreements have attracted the attention of multinational consortiums willing to pay large sums up front for the right to operate roads and pocket the tolls for decades to come.

That has outraged residents and lawmakers who say drivers will become hostages to the private companies, forced to pay increasingly hefty tolls.

But Smithey said the many projects couldn't go forward without private support. He fears restrictions in the bill would scare investors away from all but the "slam dunk" projects, dooming efforts to build a highway on the southern fringes of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"It's just not feasible if you cut the terms of the lease," he said.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Smithey and the other leaders are overreacting.

"We just want to put safeguards in place so that we know at the end of the day that we get roads built but the people who use those roads are going to be paying fair tolls," said Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate.

Voters are paying close attention and will hold lawmakers accountable if they accept a watered-down measure, said Terri Hall, founder of a group that opposes the use of CDAs.

"No matter what bill they touch they had better make sure that the citizens are on board with it, because there's going to be a price to pay at the ballot box if they turn on this grass-roots issue," Hall said.


The transportation bill is HB1892.

© 2007 The Associated Press:

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