Friday, November 09, 2007

"We are one step closer to protecting Texas taxpayers from paying twice for a highway."

Texas lawmakers thwart bid to strip tolling ban from bill


Gary Martin
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers were instrumental in an effort to keep an amendment in the transportation bill that bans tolling existing federal highways, officials said Friday.

"We are one step closer to protecting Texas taxpayers from paying twice for a highway," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

Hutchison and House members, including Reps. Ciro Rodriguez and Charlie Gonzalez, both San Antonio Democrats, have sponsored legislation to prohibit the tolling of existing federal highways.

Opponents of the ban sought to strip the language out of a House-Senate conference spending bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

Texas lawmakers, including Reps. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, Nick Lampson, D-Stafford and Chet Edwards, D-Waco, helped muster the votes to keep the ban.

The legislation now goes to full the House and Senate for a vote.

"We put progress over politics for the benefit of Texas," said Rodriguez, a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation and a member of the conference committee that put together the final bill.

Rodriguez said "using toll roads to double-tax Texans is just plain wrong."

State officials are lobbying Congress to relax current laws that prohibit tolls on U.S. highways.

Ric Williamson, the Texas transportation commissioner, met with Texas lawmakers earlier this year to drum up support for the state's position.

He told lawmakers the state is seeking to make up an $86 billion shortfall preventing Texas from improving highways.

Williamson and Gov. Rick Perry, both Republicans, have proposed buying back federal highways and turning them over to private entities to levy a toll that would produce money to improve and expand infrastructure.

Hutchison and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, as well as South Texas lawmakers, have bucked the governor and Williamson on the proposal.

Earlier this year, Hutchison and Cornyn were instrumental in passing an amendment to legislation that would call for a one-year moratorium on tolling existing federal highways in Texas.

And Rodriguez and Gonzalez joined with two Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers in filing a bill that would prohibit tolling of existing highways in their respective states.

Hutchison said the biggest victory to date came this week when a bipartisan delegation of Texas members on the conference committee fought behind closed doors to keep a ban on tolling in the spending bill.

"We could not have emerged victorious tonight if all six of us had not banded together," Hutchison said.

"Our Texas delegation was united on this issue, and everyone pitched in to achieve this victory for Texas taxpayers," Hutchison said.

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