Friday, September 07, 2007

"The bridge between Washington and Austin looks a bit shaky."

The tolling of Texas tug-of-war continues


Gary Martin
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

A Texas proposal to buy back federal interstate highways and levy a toll on those roads ran into a roadblock on Capitol Hill this week.

It was a crash that was heard throughout Congress, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, was the Jersey wall that stopped the traffic.

The state's senior senator, backed by a bipartisan group of Lone Star lawmakers, put a marker down when Ric Williamson, Texas transportation commissioner, unveiled his plan to lobby Congress to change federal law and toll highways.

When Williamson showed up on Capitol Hill, Hutchison promptly filed a bill to prohibit the tolling of existing federal highways.

"My bill will protect drivers from paying tolls on roads that were already paid for by taxpayers," Hutchison said.

As if to add an exclamation point, Hutchison pointed out she sits on the committee that sets transportation budgets.

Hutchison is eyeing a run for governor. She is also running Williamson out of Washington.

The Texas Department of Transportation and Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, say an $86 billion shortfall is preventing the state from improving highways needed to keep interstate commerce moving.

State officials want to spend $9 million to lobby Congress to buy back those federal highways and turn them over to private entities, which would levy a toll used to improve and expand the infrastructure.

But Perry was told in a May 10 letter that a public-private partnership, or PPP, would be illegal under federal law.

That letter was signed by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the highways subcommittee.

"We strongly caution you against rushing into PPPs that do not fully protect public interest," the letter warned.

Perry, in a responding letter, said, "I would hope that the federal government would encourage innovation and not stifle it."

The governor also described traffic congestion crisis on highways in the state. Anyone driving from San Antonio to Dallas through the bottleneck of Austin, on any given day, can attest to the problem.

But support for Perry's plan in Washington faces opposition.

In addition to Hutchison, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers oppose any state proposal that would force Texans to pay tolls on highways already built with public funds.

Cornyn said he does not oppose tolling for construction of new roads or highways, but could not support tolling on existing roads for future funds.

"We need to look for other alternatives," Cornyn said.

In South Texas, the entire congressional delegation has registered its opposition: Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio; Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio; Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio; and Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi.

"I don't think it's appropriate. I don't think it's ethical," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez met with Williamson to lodge his complaints. While the congressman said the state has valid concerns about funding, he remains unconvinced that toll roads are the best approach to alleviate the shortfalls.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rodriguez wants a hearing with witnesses on both sides of the issue so they can make their points about changing federal law.

Rodriguez said the state is in trouble with its infrastructure.

"But the problem is not the state, it's the country as a whole. We have not made the investment in our infrastructure," he said

The Texas proposal has garnered support from Dallas-area lawmakers and other states that share Interstate 35, which runs from Laredo to Duluth, Minn.

Hutchison is less conciliatory.

She said she would work with the congressional delegation and the Texas Legislature "to ensure that Texans are never asked to pay a toll of an existing interstate highway."

Williamson returned to Texas.

The bridge between Washington and Austin looks a bit shaky.

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