Monday, January 12, 2009

Senator Carona files bill to promote more public-private partnerships.

Lege's transportation chief taking softer line this time around

Carona has filed bill that would allow private toll road leases for another six years.


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

Lost in the hullabaloo last week over the "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 leases.

That the bill, SB 404 , came from 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 — former House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Krusee — now retired and a majority of Krusee's committee defeated or retired as well, Carona stands as the main transportation mover and shaker.

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.

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 he had become a mediator between TxDOT and its most vehement critics. Similarly, last spring he called the naming of current Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi a "missed opportunity" by Gov. Rick Perry in the wake of Williamson's death. Tuesday he praised Delisi, standing by his side as moderator of the panel, for how she had handled the job in her seven months so far. "When you're wrong, you're wrong, and you have to stand up and say so," Carona said.

Last session, the Legislature banned most long-term toll road leases with private companies, granting a handful of exceptions. And the overall authority to have such "concession agreements" as of now would expire Sept. 1 , except for those few exceptions. The state could continue to sign such 50-year agreements for those few excepted projects until Sept. 1, 2011 .

Lawmakers didn't like that the leases generally last a half century because if tollways bring in more money than predicted, companies running them would get profits that could have built other roads had TxDOT operated the roads instead. They also disliked "noncompete" 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 — 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 trying to make new policy.

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

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