Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rats scramble to rearrange deck chairs on the Trans-Texas Titanic

Transportation officials adopt toll policy


The Associated Press
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi, whose political ties to Gov. Rick Perry drew criticism when he appointed her, led her first meeting Thursday and expressed a desire to build public trust in the transportation agency.

The commissioners adopted an order governing toll projects and the Trans-Texas Corridor and set out to improve citizen and legislative access to Texas Department of Transportation's financial data.

"There's a lot more that we can do ... so that there is the public trust," Delisi said.

The commission unanimously agreed that all Texas highways will be owned by the state, not private developers; that the state may buy back the interest of a private road developer; that only expansions to existing highways will be tolled and existing free lanes won't be reduced; and that "non-compete clauses" will be banned, meaning no state contract will limit improvements to nearby existing roads.

The order also calls for an attempt to minimize disturbing private property and to consider using existing rights of way for roads.

The clarifying statement came in response to public criticism during the early planning stages of the Trans Texas Corridor, Perry's ambitious long-term plan to contract with private companies to build toll roads throughout the state.

Opponents remained skeptical. Terri Hall, director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom said that if TxDOT expands or builds a competing road, the toll contractor could require compensation from taxpayers for any resulting loss in toll revenue.

David Stall, who operates the with his wife, Linda, said the state had always intended to own the toll roads that it leased to private operators.

The new rules also call for only new lanes to be tolled, but Stall said that if TxDOT continues to rely on toll financing for new projects, it means "that they are not intending to expand existing free highways beyond the current expansion plans."

Initial phases of the Trans Texas Corridor are a toll highway that would run roughly parallel to part of Interstate 35, and Interstate 69, a road that would be constructed from Northeast Texas to the Rio Grande Valley

Perry rolled out the plan in 2002. Initial phases of the Trans Texas Corridor are a toll highway that would run roughly parallel to part of Interstate 35, and Interstate 69, a new road that would be constructed from northeast Texas to the Rio Grande Valley.

"The action of the Commission today helps get transportation policy moving in a positive direction," said state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, an Irving Republican and vice president of the Texas Conservative Coalition, which supported the new commission order.

Sen. John Carona, a Dallas Republican and chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said the transportation department is a troubled agency. He has been outspoken in saying there were others more qualified than Delisi to lead the commission and that her appointment was a purely political move by Perry, a fellow Republican.

That said, Carona added that he is optimistic Delisi will strive to get the agency and commission on track. They have suffered from poor communication and "public policy that is tone deaf to the citizens of the state," he said.

Delisi displayed a take-charge approach in Thursday's meeting when she named her other four commissioners to two subcommittees to work with agency staffers on transparency in transportation financial documents and on market valuation transparency for road projects.

"Just get moving. Get it done," Delisi said.

Perry appointed Delisi, his former gubernatorial chief of staff and former campaign manager, along with Fort Worth area tollway official William Meadows, to the commission last month.

As commission chair, Delisi takes over a job formerly held by another close Perry ally, the late Ric Williamsson, who died Dec. 30.

In other business, the commissioners heard Thursday from regional transportation authorities about pending road projects.

The commission approved a $19.8 million financing request from the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority to pay for right-of-way and engineering costs for a proposed toll project along the U.S. Highway 281 corridor north of Loop 1604

Chronicle reporter Rad Sallee contributed to this story.

© 2008 The Associated Press

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