Thursday, December 06, 2007

More political theater, more political cover and more of the same from tone deaf Texas politicians...

Perry names Floridian to toll road study team

December 6, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Gov. Rick Perry today named his three members to the private toll road study committee created in last session’s signature transportation bill, SB 792, and it includes a leading privatization advocate from … Florida?

Actually, Bob Poole, director of transportation studies for the libertarian Reason Foundation, lived in California until not all that long ago. And whether or not you agree with his view of how best to build roads — and I know you’re out there disagreeing — you can’t dispute he knows the subject matter. I’ve interviewed Poole a number of times and he knew more about Austin roads than some members of CAMPO.

Perry also named to the nine-member committee Johnny Johnson, former chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, and Grady Smithey, who served on the Duncanville City Council for 18 years. Johnson was on the commission until about a year ago and voted for all the policies that had the Legislature and much of the public so riled up in the past couple of years. Smithey and the commission, and thus Perry, have been largely sympatico about what to do on toll roads.

Under SB 792, which included a kinda-sorta ban on private toll roads and many other tweaks to toll road policy averse to Perry’s views, Perry, House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst each get three appointees to this committee. Its charge in SB 792 includes holding public hearings and then reporting back to Perry, Craddick and Dewhurst by Dec. 1, 2008 on ” the public policy implications of including in a comprehensive development agreement entered into by a toll project entity with a private participant in connection with a toll project a provision that permits the private participant to operate and collect revenue from the toll project. In addition, the committee shall examine the public policy implications of selling an existing and operating toll project to a private entity.”

Craddick and Dewhurst had previously named their committee members, all of them legislators.

From Craddick: Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee and a supporter of Perry’s toll road policy; Rep. Aaron Pena, D-Edinburg, who hasn’t been closely involved with legislative transportation issues up to now; and Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Houston, the House sponsor of SB 792 and its House twin that for awhile this spring was the main vehicle on the issue.

Smith, while his legislation bedeviled the governor, was actually most interested in insuring that the Harris County Toll Road Authority’s interests were protected. The final bill actually allows the toll road authority to ink long-term toll road leases with private companies for roads in and around Houston.

Dewhurst named Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee chairman; Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who carried SB 792; and Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

The senators present the greatest challenge to Perry’s ideas. Nichols, while serving on the transportation commission for many years, was a staunch supporter of Perry’s toll road plans. But by the time he joined this Senate this year, he had developed an independent streak on the issue about eight lanes wide. The moratorium on private toll road contracts that ended up in SB 792, albeit with many exceptions, was his idea.

Carona, meanwhile, kicked off last session by calling for commission chairman Ric Williamson to step down. He softened his tone as the session wore on and become something of a bridge between a restive Senate and TxDOT.

The committee’s work, some of it in public, and its final product could be a great indicator of what sort of session TxDOT, which emerged bloodied but characteristically unbowed from the 2007 melee, will see in 2009.

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