Tuesday, June 12, 2007

'Moratorium' is rife with exceptions

Perry signs toll road bill

Bill's private tollway 'moratorium' rife with exceptions, but SB 792 likely to mean fewer long-term leases with private sector.

June 11, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday signed toll road legislation that is well short of the ban on private toll road contracts some lawmakers sought, but likely will result in regional toll road agencies building most new tollways.

The bill, SB 792, will also preclude the state for at least the next two years from "selling" to the private sector existing tollways such as the four turnpikes that opened in the Austin area over the past few months.

"I am proud to sign this legislation because it will help Texas build the roads we need to manage our state's tremendous population growth," Perry said in a statement. "Under this legislation, every planned road construction project will move forward as scheduled, local leaders will have more authority to build new toll roads and all toll revenue will be used for transportation projects in the area it was raised."

Perry's signature comes after a tumultuous session in which virtually the entire Legislature rebelled over the aggressive toll road policies carried out by Perry and his appointees. Dozens of bills were filed to roll back powers of the Texas Department of Transportation.

The session began with a call by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, for Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson to leave his post, and a testy public exchange between the two men in a committee meeting. By April, Carona was acting as mediator between the agency and its more strident legislative critics. And Williamson is still commission chairman.

Ultimately, the only significant change to toll road policy came in SB 792.

The bill contains a two-year freeze on private toll road contracts, and in another provision ends the Transportation Department's authority to reach such agreements after Aug. 31, 2009. But the initial freeze on all private toll roads gathered about a dozen exceptions as it moved through the legislative wringer. The long-term ban contains similar exceptions.

But supporters of local tollway agencies, who felt like the state Transportation Department was shoving them aside in favor of private operators and their hefty up-front payments to the state, made significant gains. About a half dozen projects in Houston were allocated outright to the Harris County Toll Road Authority, and the North Texas Tollway Authority was allowed to re-enter competition for the lucrative Texas 121 tollway after the state reached tentative accord with a private company.

The Transportation Department, however, in late changes to the legislation, essentially won the right to inject competition in all future toll road projects. Local agencies and the state will commission independent "market valuations" for each proposed tollway, in effect putting a price tag on a project. If the local toll road agency can't meet the price, then the state might be able to offer the projects to the private sector.

Williamson in a recent interview said that the effect of this legislative session will go beyond the document Perry signed Monday. "What you can't change is the five months of communication from the legislative leaders," Williamson said. "We will change our behavior accordingly."

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www.statesman.com

To search TTC News Archives click HERE