Tuesday, May 01, 2007

"What was an Austin long shot has snowballed into a tremendous piece of legislation."

Perry may veto toll bill


Howard Roden, Senior writer
The Courier (Mongomery County)
Copyright 2007

While local lawmakers are confident they have the votes to override a veto by Gov. Rick Perry, they hope their overwhelming support of a transportation bill will deter him from initiating a legislative showdown.

The state House is expected later today to approve a Senate-amended version of House Bill 1892 that, among other things, includes a two-year moratorium on privately financed toll roads. The bill also imposes greater restrictions on the Perry-backed Trans Texas Corridor, a series of proposed super highways that would traverse the state from Mexico to Arkansas.
The bill, which underwent some last-minute adjustments by the Senate Monday, gives county and regional toll road authorities greater power in dealing with the Texas Department of Transportation.

A joint author of HB 1892, state Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said the legislation allows local officials - and the newly formed Montgomery County Toll Road Authority - to plan for mobility projects "without interference" from TxDOT.

The bill was originally filed in February by state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown. Smith crafted the bill due to conflicts between the Harris County Toll Road Authority and TxDOT. He said the state agency has demanded the HCTRA begin paying a "connectivity fee" for any toll roads the HCTRA connects to state roads.

But what began as a bill with relatively restrictive local interest has proven to be a "testament to the democratic process," said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, the primary architect behind the toll road moratorium.

Because HB 1892 is being handled through the House County Affairs Committee, of which Smith is chairman, the bill avoided the steadfast opposition of House Transportation Committee chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock. Krusee, one of only two representatives to vote against HB 1892 last week, has kept both Nichols' moratorium legislation (Senate Bill 1267) and the companion bill by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham (HB 2772), locked up in his committee.

But Kolkhorst completed an end run by amending the moratorium provision of her bill to Smith's. On Friday, the Senate tacked on a couple of amendments to HB 1892. They include shortening private toll road contracts from 70 to 40 years and require a "buyback" formula be established before any private toll roads are built.

Another Senate amendment drops the distance of the "non-compete" zone between private funded toll roads and public roads from 5 miles to 4 miles.

State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, filed a companion bill to HB 1892 in the Senate and has served as its sponsor.

"Tommy has been a champion in this," Smith said Monday from the House floor. "And Brandon Creighton saw right off the benefit for Montgomery County with the legislation."
A "handful" of private toll road projects already in the pre-bid process were grandfathered from HB 1892. Those exceptions to the bill were approved 31-0 by the Senate late Monday afternoon.

"What was an Austin long shot has snowballed into a tremendous piece of legislation," Creighton said. "We can untie our hands and end this stalemate with TxDOT."

Should Perry veto the bill, the House and Senate would each require a two-thirds majority to override. The last time the Legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto was 1979.

"Obviously this (veto) is a very difficult thing to do, but the chances are very good," Creighton said.

Smith said he spent the past couple of days talking to his fellow House members.

"We're hoping it (an override) doesn't come to this, but we're solid," he said.

Howard Roden can be reached at hroden@hcnonline.com.

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