Thursday, May 29, 2008

“We have been pushing TxDOT to stop these non-compete clauses for some time..."

Hinojosa: Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT are finally starting to listen to the public.


By: Steve Taylor
The Rio Grande Guardian
Copyright 2008

McALLEN, May 29 - A border lawmaker who will play a big role in reshaping the Texas Department of Transportation says its governing board is starting to pay attention to elected officials and the public.

On Thursday, the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) agreed that comprehensive development agreements with private road builders will no longer include so-called “non-compete” clauses that prohibit improvements to existing roadways.

“We have been pushing TxDOT to stop these non-compete clauses for some time and finally the pressure is paying off,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. “Now, it looks as though TxDOT is responding to the concerns of the public and the legislature.”

Hinojosa is a member of the Sunset Commission, a panel comprising House and Senate members that plans to take a long, hard, look at TxDOT this summer.

Under new guiding principles and policies, TxDOT and governmental entity, such as a Regional Mobility Authority, will be able to construct, reconstruct, expand, rehabilitate or maintain any roadway that is near or intersects with any roadway under the CDA.

The new guidelines will govern the development, construction and operation of toll road projects on the state highway system and the Trans-Texas Corridor. TTC Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi said the principles approved Thursday reflect the comments the TTC has received from Texas drivers, legislators and members of its citizen advisory committees.

“Texans deserve a clear, straightforward explanation of what we are doing to solve our transportation challenges and how we are doing it,” Delisi said.

“The Texas Legislature shares our commitment to improving highway safety and creating economic opportunity, and they expect us to meet these goals in keeping with our state's tradition of protecting the rights of property owners.”

Delisi said all state highway facilities, including the Trans-Texas Corridor, will be completely owned by the state of Texas at all times. Three other principles were affirmed by the TTC:

* All Comprehensive Development Agreements will include provisions that allow TxDOT to purchase or "buy back" the interest of a private developer in a CDA at any time if buying back the project would be in the best financial interest of the state.

* The Texas Transportation Commission shall approve, in a public meeting, the initial toll rates charged for the use of a toll project on the state highway system and the methodology for increasing the amount of tolls. All rate-setting actions will come after consultation with appropriate local metropolitan planning organizations.

* Only new lanes added to an existing highway will be tolled, and there will be no reduction in the number of non-tolled lanes that currently exist.

“These principles will help guide TxDOT as we work to improve our state's traffic congestion and air quality problems,” Delisi said.

Hinojosa said he was pleased with the TTC was responding to the wishes of the public and to lawmakers. “Transportation is not a private matter. We may lease our roads to private corporations to help with construction and for tolling but they belong to the people of Texas,” he said.

Hinojosa said he was particularly pleased that in future all toll fees will be vetted at a public hearing.

“Chair Delisi is reaching out to the legislature and the public. That is a very good sign,” Hinojosa said. “It is important we have open lines of communication. That does not mean we will not have bumps in the road but when they do arise we will be better able to deal with them.”

During a speech to the McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s legislative affairs committee recently, Hinojosa was particularly hard on TxDOT and the TTC. “Next session you will see us do several things. We intend to rein in TxDOT. We are going after them, period. We want them to be more responsive. We set policy, they don’t,” Hinojosa said.

Delisi said that the Trans-Texas Corridor implementation plan "Crossroads of the Americas," should be updated to reflect changes in the state's transportation challenges since it was first released in June of 2002.

“As we work to develop important projects like a parallel corridor to I-35 and the long-awaited I-69, we will work toward meeting our goals with these important principles in mind,” Delisi said.

There was a huge outcry from South Texas ranchers when TxDOT unveiled preliminary plans to build TTC-69 to the west of Highway 281. Delisi said that in recognition of the legislature's commitment to protecting landowners' property rights TxDOT would always consider the use of existing right of way that satisfies the purpose and need of the project as a possible project location when conducting environmental studies.

She also said that to the extent practical, TxDOT will plan and design facilities so that a landowner's property is not severed into two or more separate tracts. She said the agency wants to preserve the original shape of the property wherever possible.

Hinojosa is not the only South Texas legislator taking a critical look at TTC and TxDOT. State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, and state Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, have criticized the geographical balance of the TTC board.

“South Texas has been grossly underrepresented on the commission for many years. A review of the commission's history reveals that, of the past thirty-five years, there has only been one commissioner from south of San Antonio and he served for less than one year,” Ortiz said, in a statement earlier this month.

© 2008 The Rio Grande Guardian

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