Sunday, September 23, 2007

"TxDOT is facing popular uprisings featuring everything but pitchforks in Austin and San Antonio."

Sad days for highwaymen

Sept. 22, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

If you work at it, I think you can bring yourself to feel a little sorry for the good folks at the mighty Texas Department of Transportation.

Tomorrow they're going to have to go before a judge to defend themselves against an anti-toll road activist from San Antonio who wants to keep them from spending $7 million to $9 million on an advertising and public relations campaign to convince Texans how wonderful their ambitious, privatized toll-road plans are.

But as bad as the bother is of having to respond to a mere citizen-activist, consider this:

I remember a day when TxDOT's more honestly named predecessor, the Texas Highway Commission, couldn't imagine having to spend a postage stamp, much less $9 million, to defend itself to the citizenry.

Kissing their rings

At a time when the state was more rural and gas was cheap, both Austin staff and district engineers throughout the state were potentates of the political system, the real structure not described in civics books.

Legislators funded them generously through gas taxes and county commissioners and mayors kissed their rings. The reason is that every elected official wanted new and improved roads in his district.

How far the mighty have fallen. TxDOT is facing popular uprisings featuring everything but pitchforks in Austin and San Antonio, where Houston-style congestion is relatively new and toll roads are novel.

That uppity Legislature

But worse, rather than genuflect to the Counts of Concrete, the Legislature has grown more than disrespectful. It has become rebellious.

Last June, Coby Chase, director of TxDOT's Government and Business Enterprise Division (an interesting title in itself), briefed commissioners on the just-completed legislative session.

Total funding, he said, increased only 2 percent — not near enough to cover inflation since the last biennium, while the state's population and pent-up transportation needs burgeoned.

Sensitive to voter anger over soaring gasoline prices, the Legislature turned down proposals to raise the 20-cent-per-gallon tax or to index it to the price of gas. Yet high prices at the pump are hiking sales of more efficient cars, which can be expected to put a brake on state revenues.

The governor and TxDOT have responded with schemes to auction the rights to build toll roads to the highest private-sector bidders, who will, of course, recover their money by charging drivers what the market will bear.

But the uppity Legislature voted, overwhelmingly in both houses, to put a moratorium on new toll road projects, with a few exceptions.

Well! The indignity of it all!

Gov. Rick Perry, who has provided the major push behind the privately operated toll roads, vetoed the bill.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, had authored the Senate version of the House bill that was vetoed. Rather than engage in a veto override fight, he said, he and others negotiated with the governor's office and TxDOT using his bill as a vehicle.

From Williams' standpoint, the best thing about the bill is that it lets the Harris County Toll Road Authority proceed with six proposed projects. Specific projects in the Metroplex and a few other places are also exempted.

The compromise with the governor is that instead of a total moratorium, a process is set up that allows local authorities the first right to build toll projects before they are offered to the private sector.

"It was the governor's idea, not mine," said Williams.

But even that process is what Chase described to TxDOT commissioners as a "an artificial competition."

"Previously, our strategy was to allow the market to determine value of a project through a competitive process," Chase said.

In other words, private corporations would bid on how much they would pay the state to build and operate proposed toll roads, setting their own tolls to recoup their investments.

It was a competition few public officials would want to join. In order to beat the private companies, the public officials would have to charge toll rates that would subject them to anger from taxpayers who feel they shouldn't be gouged by their government.

So the law Williams carries neuters the governor's intent. The first is that it requires that TxDOT and the local authority agree on an independent consultant to be hired to determine the "market value" of any proposed project.

But among other things, the two sides must agree in advance of ordering the study what the toll rates will be now and over a period of time.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority, for example, could insist on a rate lower than what the traffic will bear, and thereby lower the "market value," or the amount for which the right to operate the road can be sold.

If both sides agree, the study is done and the local authority pays that amount into a fund to be used for other local projects. If it chooses not to, TxDOT can go out for private bids, using the agreed toll structure.

If both sides can't agree in advance, the project dies.

In other words, whereas the state highway barons always had veto power, now the locals also do.

Can it work? Here's a measure of the confidence level, which reflects the last-minute pressure under which the scheme was concocted: That section of the law expires in four years.

You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at

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