Monday, March 23, 2009

Senator Nichols' bill could be a 'poison pill' for his re-election

State Sen. Nichols looks to tame tollway deals

If private tollway contracts remain legal, Jacksonville Republican wants to make sure state gets a fair deal.


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

It was about this time two years ago when, figuratively, I costumed a Texas state senator in a silk muumuu and pink boa.

Sen. Robert Nichols, I said, couldn't have surprised colleagues more if he walked on the Senate floor wearing such finery. The Jacksonville Republican, you see, was a Texas Transportation Commission member for several years before running for the Senate in 2006. He had supported toll roads and the move toward the Texas Department of Transportation having private companies build and operate some of them.

Then, in February 2007, Nichols filed a bill to slap a two-year ban on such agreements. He said the half-century-long deals as written were bad for the state, potentially funneling bonanzas of toll profits to stockholders rather than to Texas roads. He had some specific safeguards in mind.

That audacious move by the rookie senator (albeit a 62-year-old rookie) was the spark for a session-long wienie roast of TxDOT and such "public-private partnerships." The moratorium took a ride on another bill and eventually became law. Another section of the law forever ends state authority for such agreements Sept. 1.

Last Wednesday, Nichols was wearing a charcoal-gray suit and muted copper-and-black tie as he laid out in committee another bill on the same subject. The conservative attire (his normal couture, by the way) is appropriate for SB 17, which is tied to the survival of long-term toll road leases.

You see, Nichols was never against the possibility of TxDOT hiring someone like Cintra-Zachry to build and run, and profit from, a Texas toll road. He was just against giving away the store.

So this bill, which Nichols spent a good chunk of the past 18 months criss-crossing the state to create and secure support for, would do several things:

It would require such contracts to have specific buyback prices on at least five-year intervals throughout a 50-year contract. So the state, if a private tollway were wildly profitable, could buy it back for, at most, these prearranged prices rather than a potentially much higher "market rate."

"Noncompete" clauses in such contracts, which require the state to pay the toll road company for building nearby roads that hurt tollway business, would be limited to 30 years. All roads in long-range local plans when the contract is signed, along with all interstates, would be exempt.

Local toll road agencies would have first shot at all proposed tollway projects.

Is his bill a poison pill, killing private-toll road leases softly by making them untenable? No, Nichols said. Toll road folks, he said, say such deals will still be possible.

Will private tollway leases still be legal in Texas? That question will be fought out in a separate bill, SB 404, carried by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. If so, however, Nichols' bill aims to make them a better deal.

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