Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Perry signs and spins 'moratorium'

Perry signs 2-year private toll-road moratorium


By Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau
The El Paso Times
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- Gov. Rick Perry signed a massive transportation bill on Monday that will put a two-year stop on private toll road deals, primarily in rural areas.

"It will help Texas build the roads we need to manage our state's tremendous population growth," Perry said.

Lawmakers, reacting to outrage from voters, started the legislative session with the goal of clamping down on multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar private contracts to build toll roads.

"People want more money to go into roads instead of somebody's pocketbook," said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso.

He said the legislation will allow toll roads to continue but ensure more of the money from those fees is reinvested in public highway construction.

Major road projects already under way in most urban areas, including El Paso, are excluded from the moratorium.

Locally, only road projects that the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization has already approved will be exempt from the ban.

Pickett added a measure to the bill that would put under the ban projects the MPO has not approved, including a proposal to extend the Border Highway from Fabens to Canutillo and add toll lanes.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, said that could jeopardize more than $100 million the Texas Department of Transportation has allotted for the so-called southern relief route.

Pickett said the plan the MPO has approved, which does not include the tolled southern relief route, but has a northern toll route through the city, would create more roads and relieve more congestion.

TxDOT, Pickett said, would still have to give El Paso its road money, even if the city chooses to toll the northern route instead of the southern route.

Despite concerns about the local impacts, Shapleigh said overall the bill was a good one because it allows local governments more control over road building and toll rates.

"What is great about (the bill) is the MPO will consider each detail, and the vote will be local," he said. "To me, that's how it should be."

Perry vetoed a bill lawmakers initially sent him that included the two-year private toll ban. That bill, he said, would have cost Texas jobs and money.

The bill he signed Monday puts the ban in place while addressing problems Perry had with the initial legislation.

Brandi Grissom can be reached at bgrissom@elpasotimes.com;(512) 479-6606.

© 2007 The El Paso Times: www.elpasotimes.com

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