Monday, June 04, 2007

Private toll road 'moratorium' is $20 billion short of a 'freeze.'

Perry stared down legislative blitz

June 04, 2007

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

You may have heard that the Legislature this session approved a moratorium on toll roads.

If so, you heard wrong. No legislators that I ran into this session wanted to snuff out tollways.

Or you might have heard or read that lawmakers passed a moratorium on long-term toll road leases with private companies. This is true, but only in the most qualified sense.

This prohibition — contained in Senate Bill 792, which Gov. Rick Perry hasn't yet signed but almost certainly will when he makes it back from Turkey — is perforated with exceptions.

Under SB 792, private toll road contracts similar to the one already reached with Cintra-Zachry for Texas 130 could be done on seven projects in Dallas-Fort Worth, a proposed Interstate 69 from near Victoria to Brownsville, anything in Cameron County and all but one project in El Paso County, and on Loop 1604 in San Antonio.

And, oh yes, after Perry threatened to veto an earlier version of SB 792, the Legislature removed language that would have made it impossible to do private toll road contracts on the Trans-Texas Corridor tollway twin for Interstate 35.

Even taking the two counties and the corridor out of the discussion — lawmakers made it clear that no contracts should be signed on the corridor for the next two years, even if they didn't outright ban them — we're talking about $20 billion in contracts on those other nine roads. That's 10 zeros short of a freeze.

The obvious question, given all the public pressure and the periodic displays of legislative umbrage this session at a Texas Department of Transportation "run amok": How can this be? Everyone said they wanted to vote for a moratorium, but we didn't really get one?

It's all about commitment. In politics, all other things being equal, the side that wants it the most and is willing to do whatever it takes is going to win most of the time. In this case, that side was Perry and the Department of Transportation.

Legislators were conflicted. They wanted to please constituents, particularly rural ones, who don't want a bunch of new tollways "owned" by foreign companies cutting through farms. They were nervous about 50-year toll road leases that might outlive their children, and about corporations toting away profits that might otherwise go to building other roads.

But lawmakers also wanted urban highways, as many as possible and as soon as possible, and the Houston and Dallas delegations in particular wanted to build and run most tollways in their areas. And legislators also didn't intend to raise the gas tax, no matter how much the fiscal logic of the situation tells them they should. Those are, taken together, competing imperatives.

So the legislative commitment to stop private toll roads stretched from one end of the Capitol to the other, but it was about a centimeter deep. Perry, on the other hand, and his compadre Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, have a passion for their agenda taller than the Capitol dome. Perry said he'd veto bills that materially curbed private toll roads and made it clear to legislators behind closed doors that he would call special sessions ad infinitum until he got what he wanted. Legislators believed him, and they blinked.

The Wednesday before lawmakers adjourned for good May 28, Williamson hosted his monthly briefing with reporters at Transportation Department World Headquarters, across 11th Street from the Capitol. By then it was looking like SB 792, which emerged as the toll road bill of choice after several pretenders had skidded into the ditch, would pass and would be acceptable to Perry.

Williamson, spotted several weeks earlier huddling with confederates at the Capitol after the Legislature passed a much tougher toll road bill, had looked grim. (Perry vetoed that earlier bill.) This day, though, Williamson sauntered into the room seeming pretty pleased with life. As he swung into his chair, he tossed some party favors onto the table, royal-blue plastic wristbands with white writing on them. The words succinctly captured why SB 792 turned out the way it did.

The Churchillian message: "Never ever give up."

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