Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said that she believes that the corridor project is still viable and will remain so despite rising gas prices."

Texas' private toll road developers lose compete clause, officials say

May. 29, 2008

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN -- The Texas Department of Transportation will no longer guarantee private toll road developers that free roads won't be built near their projects, officials said Wednesday.

Until now, toll road developers have been able to negotiate a clause in their contracts with the state guaranteeing that no competing roads would be built to draw traffic away from their project. At least one turnpike in Austin has such a clause.

But critics have long said that so-called noncompete clauses are evidence that privately run toll projects -- including the ambitious Trans-Texas Corridor -- put too much power in the hands of private, often foreign-owned companies.

In response, the Texas Transportation Commission Thursday is expected to approve guiding principles for future projects, including language that bans noncompete clauses. The state will also no longer include language in contracts to compensate developers for revenue lost because of construction of new roads, said Amadeo Saenz, executive director of the Transportation Department.

The principles will put in writing what the agency already practices in negotiating toll projects, Deputy Executive Director Steve Simmons said.

"The message wasn't getting out, so we thought it was time to reaffirm," Simmons said Wednesday.

Possible actions

Other guiding principles the commission is expected to approve Thursday:
  • Toll roads will remain public property, even if leased to a private entity.
  • The state may buy back a toll project from a developer at any time.
  • Toll rates will be set in a public meeting, with input from local officials.
  • The agency will use existing rights of way whenever possible and avoid chopping private land into two or more pieces.
A closer look

Austin example: A contract between the state and developers prohibits roads from being built within 10 miles of the Central Texas Turnpike in Austin. Since that turnpike was planned, a state law was enacted that limits noncompete clauses to four miles from a toll road. During the 2009 legislative session, lawmakers could do away with the clauses altogether.

Trans-Texas Corridor: On Wednesday, state transportation officials downplayed assertions that the agency, by adopting the guiding principles, is trying to salvage the Trans-Texas Corridor plan originally unveiled by Gov. Rick Perry in 2002. Perry's vision was to build a network of toll roads, rail lines and utility lines across Texas, with the first corridor running roughly parallel to the Interstate 35 corridor from Dallas-Fort Worth to San Antonio.

Critics: They've attacked the plan on several fronts, including saying it will cut across family farms and bring truck traffic through areas that don't want it. Several lawmakers have said they no longer believe that the Trans-Texas Corridor can be built as drawn up, because of widespread opposition statewide.

Supporters: New commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said Wednesday that she believes that the corridor project is still viable and will remain so despite rising gas prices.

Local input

Dozens of North Texas officials are expected to address the commission Thursday. They will ask it to allow greater flexibility in regional transportation planning and to allow locally generated toll road revenue to be kept in a Metroplex bank rather than sent to Austin.

Also Thursday, new Commissioners Bill Meadows of Fort Worth and Delisi, of Austin, will take their seats.

Talking transportation

The Texas Transportation Commission meets at 9 a.m. in Austin.

Several dozen North Texas leaders are expected to address the commission, including Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino.

Can't go? No problem. Watch the meeting from the comfort of your computer at High-speed Internet access is required.
Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816.

© 2008 Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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