Saturday, September 29, 2007

Showdown over private toll road 'moratorium'

TxDOT Funding Gripes Get Cool Reception

September 28, 2007

by Christine DeLoma
Volume 12, Issue 8
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2007

As lawmakers take a deeper look at the implications of leasing state roads to private contractors, state transportation officials are fighting back – warning lawmakers there will soon be a shortage of funds for transportation projects.

It’s a showdown over the private toll road moratorium.

No more money?

Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson sounded the alarm at the Sept. 27 commission meeting, saying the private toll road moratorium, along with rising highway costs and federal grant cuts, may cause the agency to scale back its plan to build new roads throughout the state.

The warning is nothing new. Williamson has talked in the same vein for several months. Now, deep-seated mistrust between many lawmakers and the agency is causing the alarm to fall on deaf ears.

Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), for example, who attended the meeting, was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman as saying, “[I]t’s always gloom-and-doom” with the Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Williamson has repeatedly criticized the Legislature for taking away the agency’s primary tool in raising funds to build new roads, the use of comprehensive development agreements (CDA’s) with private developers.

Lawmakers had a variety of concerns over the length of contract agreements, the setting of toll rates, the inclusion of non-compete clauses, and the buy-back provisions. Accordingly, legislators voted for a two-year moratorium (with several exceptions for urban areas) on CDA’s.

Study committee excludes Krusee.

During the private toll road moratorium, lawmakers will study the use of CDA’s in building private toll roads. Speaker Tom Craddick on Sept. 27 named three members to the Legislative Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Projects.

“This session, the issue of toll roads built with private equity became a matter of much concern among the Legislature and the general public,” Craddick said. “It is my hope that this committee will come up with substantive recommendations so that we can resolve conflicts on this issue.”

Craddick named the following members: Reps. Aaron Peña (D-Edinburg), Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) and Wayne Smith (R-Baytown). Missing from the committee is the primary defender of CDA’s, Transportation chairman Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock). Lt. Gov. David Dewhust and Gov. Rick Perry have yet to make their appointments.

Court says TxDOT advertising OK.

Toll road opponents were rebuffed this week in their efforts to stop TxDOT’s campaign extolling the virtues of toll roads in Texas.

State Dist. Judge Orlinda Naranjo denied San Antonio Toll Party Terri Hall’s request for a temporary injunction on TxDOT’s $9 million “Keep Texas Moving” advertising campaign. Naranjo said the Legislature gave TxDOT the legal authority to promote its activities throughout the state.

TxDOT is using taxpayer funds to promote the use of toll roads and the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor through a multi-media campaign using radio, TV, print, and Internet to solve the state’s traffic congestion problems.

At an expected second hearing next week the state Attorney General’s office is predicted to move for dismissal. Hall and her lawyers will allege that TxDOT, contrary to state law, advanced a political rather than an educational campaign.

Paxton asks for interim charge. Meanwhile, Rep. Ken Paxton (R-McKinney) has requested that the Speaker issue an interim charge for the Legislature to study taxpayer lobbying.

“The Texas Department of Transportation has recently been called into question for spending taxpayer money promoting the Trans Texas Corridor and other projects,” Paxton said. “While I appreciate the Department’s efforts to share with the public information regarding its initiatives, I believe the Legislature has a responsibility to ensure that state resources are spent efficiently. For this reason, I have requested an interim charge to research the use of public money for advertising government programs, as I believe the government should not spend the money raised from taxpayers to lobby the public.”

Tolling existing interstates?

When lawmakers learned TxDOT was lobbying Congress for the authority to buy a portion of our federal highways in order to put toll plazas on them, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison quickly crafted an amendment to ban the idea outright.

However, as with most legislative wrangling, the content of the legislation has changed. Hutchison has teamed up with Pennsylvania Rep. John E. Peterson to help secure the provision to the Fiscal Year 2008 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations bill. The most recent iteration of the ban now would allow states to opt-in to a one-year ban on tolling existing interstate highways.

The other major change to her proposal: Individual states would be allowed to toll newly constructed roads or lanes.

Hutchison said she will work for a national prohibition on tolling existing federal highways in 2009.

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