Tuesday, May 08, 2007

TxDOT works to undermine private toll road moratorium

Official says bill endangers toll roads in Tarrant


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- Several highway projects on the drawing board for Tarrant County could be delayed or scuttled by little-noticed language in legislation that went to Gov. Rick Perry's desk on Monday.

The head of the Texas Department of Transportation said in a letter to state Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson, said that the measure would force the agency to spend tens of millions of dollars planned for such projects as the North Tarrant Express and a western link of Texas 121 on projects on the Dallas County side of the Metroplex.

"If this bill becomes law, we may well be back here trying to fix the problem in special session this summer," Hill said.

Backers of the bill, including state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, disputed the contention, saying the Transportation Department is crying wolf.

The measure, a far-reaching transportation package that would put a moratorium on many new toll road projects but was designed to leave plans for several toll roads in North Texas largely untouched, is considered likely to be vetoed. But because House Bill 1892 passed by large margins in both the House and Senate, a veto override would be considered likely.

Michael Behrens, executive director of the Transportation Department, said in his letter to Hill that the bill would likely force officials to renegotiate several planned toll road agreements with the Spanish company that plans to build them and maintain them for 50 years.

Under plans expected to be completed next month, the company would pay the state several billion dollars over 50 years for the right to build and operate Texas 121 as a toll road in Collin County. Officials from North Texas, who negotiated the deal, plan to use millions of those dollars to build projects all over the region.

But Behrens said that because that project is in the Transportation Commission's Dallas district, all money generated from the toll road agreement would have to stay in the Dallas district.

"As a result, these projects in the Fort Worth area will be placed on hold until other funding can be identified," Behrens said in his letter.

Robert Black, Perry's press secretary, said the bill could undermine years of careful negotiation by North Texas officials to address worsening traffic congestion.

Black would not say whether Perry would veto the measure. But he has only 10 days to decide whether to veto it, sign it or let it become law without his signature. That leaves ample time for both houses to consider an override.

Geren, who didn't see Behrens' letter until late Monday, was skeptical of its conclusions. "I disagree with TxDOT's interpretation," he said.

John Moritz, 512-476-4294

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