Thursday, July 02, 2009

“I think the Republic would survive without it."

Toll road plan falters as special session opens

The sky is falling

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN — A push to allow for new privately run toll roads hit a pothole Wednesday as the special legislative session opened, with the measure likely to be drastically scaled back or ditched.

The idea was “struggling to find support,” said Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas.

Backers of using the public-private partnerships known as comprehensive development agreements say the funding method is needed to help build roads at a time when tax and bond revenue is proving inadequate. Foes worry that the state — and drivers — get the short end of the stick when private companies get decades-long deals to collect tolls.

Carona said it’s one of many road-building tools but a complex one that’s politically problematic.

The issue is one of three that Gov. Rick Perry put before lawmakers when he called them into special session to finish work left undone in the recent regular session. The others — continuing five state agencies that otherwise would expire and providing for $2 billion in road bonds to be issued — appeared on track.

The Senate approved the measure to extend state agencies Wednesday, sending it to the House for consideration. The House could act Thursday on the bond measure, which would put $1 billion of the proceeds into a revolving loan fund.

The proposal to extend comprehensive development agreement authority, however, has a tougher road.

Need questioned

Activists who oppose allowing the Texas Department of Transportation and regional mobility authorities to enter into the partnerships raised a ruckus. Some lawmakers questioned the need to reauthorize the agreements now.

Lawmakers allowed the comprehensive development agreements in 2003 but later put a moratorium on new ones in the face of critics who contended the state was selling public assets. The general ability for TxDOT and regional authorities to enter into agreements expires this year.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, has proposed extending existing comprehensive development agreements until 2013 and allowing new ones under strict restrictions. He said his bill would afford protection while allowing an important financing tool.

“We can do nothing; we can kick the can down the road a couple more years; or we can fix this thing,” Nichols said. “I’d like to fix it.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said the measure was optional this session: “I think the Republic would survive” without it.

Reporter Gary Scharrer contributed to this story.

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