Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sen. John Carona files a bill giving six more years of life to private toll road agreements.

LESS-atorium on concession agreements


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

Lost in all the hullabaloo Tuesday over the tragic and oh-so-sudden “death” of the Trans-Texas Corridor was news that the Legislature’s transportation leader filed a bill that same day giving six more years of life to private toll road agreements.

That the bill, SB 404, came from state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, is no small thing. Carona is chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. With his counterpart on the other side of the Capitol now retired — former House Transportation Committee chairman Mike Krusee — and a majority of Krusee’s committee gone from the Legislature as well, Carona stands as the main mover-and-shaker on the issue.

Carona dropped news of his bill into the middle of remarks he made on a panel at the Texas Transportation Forum at the Austin Hilton.

“To foreclose any option (for building roads) would be foolish,” Carona said during his remarks on what might be coming during the legislative session.

Watching Carona has been interesting over the past two years. He began the 2007 session calling for the replacement of Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson, then by late in the session had become something of a mediator between TxDOT and its most vehement critics. Similarly, last spring he sharply criticized current chairwoman Deirdre Delisi as a “missed opportunity” by Gov. Rick Perry in the wake of Williamson’s death, and said lawmakers did not find her “very warm and personable.” Tuesday, he praised Delisi, standing by his side as moderator of the panel, for how she had handled the job in her seven months leading the Texas Transportation Commission and said that “when you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and you have to stand up and say so.”

Last session, the Legislature banned most long-term toll road leases with private companies, granting a handful of exceptions. Beyond that, the overall authority to have such “concession agreements” right now would expire Sept. 1, except for those few exceptions. The state or toll authorities could reach such agreements for those excepted projects until Sept. 1, 2011.

Lawmakers didn’t like that the leases generally last 50 years, meaning that if the tollways bring in more money than expected then the companies running them would end up with profits that could have been used to build other roads if TxDOT instead was operated the roads. They were also concerned about “non-compete” clauses that could mean fewer improvements in free roads near the tollways.

Carona’s bill would extend both of those expiration dates for possible concession agreements by six years.

Carona, both in his manner, his legislation and his rhetoric, seems to be sending the message that while the 2007 session was mostly about fighting over transportation and stopping what lawmakers saw as bad transportation policy, the 2009 session will be about making new and better policy.

Not all legislators interested in transportation will necessarily be in as mellow a mood. But Carona’s opening moves could mean that the inevitable differences of opinion this time around won’t become quite as heated.

© 2009 Austin

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE