Friday, May 18, 2007

"Things can happen very fast here at the end of the session."

Road bill gets the green light in House

Legislature: Lawmakers reach compromise in bid to avoid Perry veto

May 18, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – A compromise transportation bill that lawmakers hope will avert a showdown with the governor took on more baggage in the House on Thursday, but members overwhelmingly approved it.

Under pressure to act quickly, House members instead tweaked and fiddled with the bill that overhauls the state's toll road policies and places a limited two-year freeze on private toll deals.

Gov. Rick Perry, who has touted private toll roads as a solution to the state's traffic congestion, has hinted he would veto an earlier, more stringent version of the transportation bill. He also has threatened to call a special session if lawmakers don't produce a bill he can live with.

Earlier this week, after several rounds of negotiations with the governor's office and lawmakers from both chambers, senators unanimously passed a compromise bill.

The bill creates a new process for developing toll roads by which regional transportation authorities would work with the state to determine a market value for a proposed toll road and then give local agencies the first shot at the project.

It also puts a 50-year limit on private toll contracts, up from a 40-year cap in the previous bill, and allows future toll revenues to be factored into a formula if the state wants to buy back road projects.

House members ultimately approved the compromise bill Thursday in two overwhelming votes, the last by a 143-2 count. But members also added 20 amendments ranging from local exemptions to ethics policies for regional transportation officials.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, conceded that the compromise bill is full of "carve-outs." But she said she's still confident that the bill will slow down the Texas Department of Transportation's aggressive push to privatize toll roads, particularly the Trans-Texas Corridor.

"They were like a rocket, and I think they're crawling a little more like a turtle now," she said.

Thursday's changes now must pass muster with the Senate. If senators quickly approve the House provisions, they could recall the first transportation bill from the governor's desk before tonight's veto deadline.

"Things can happen very fast here at the end of the session," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said Thursday after the House approved the bill. "I don't know yet how tough it's going to be. It sounds like it might be a challenge."

But if senators take their time to mull over the changes, the governor is likely to veto the earlier bill, which automatically becomes law if he does not act by tonight.

In both bills, North Texas is largely exempted from the two-year ban on private toll road contracts. Area lawmakers repeatedly have argued that the fast-growing region cannot afford any delay in relieving traffic congestion.

Most North Texas toll projects already in the works would not be subject to the market-value process created in the new bill. But State Highway 161 in Grand Prairie would be a "test case" to try out the new system.

Several North Texas legislators said determining a market value for Highway 161 could delay the road, which will bring traffic to and from the new Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington. But House members rejected an amendment to change the provision.

"That road looks like war-torn Bosnia from one end of Grand Prairie to the other," said Rep. Kirk England, R-Grand Prairie.

Staff writer Emily Ramshaw contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co. Co

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