Sunday, July 12, 2009

"It's up to the taxpayers to remain vigilant...CDAs are the more expensive tool in the toolbox. But that’s the one they keep reaching for."

CDAs ‘not dead yet’ opponents, supporters say

Bring out your dead [CDAs]!


by Andy Hogue
Copyright 2009

Two billion dollars and another two years of life isn’t a bad deal for the Texas Department of Transportation, is it? It depends on with whom you speak.

Besides losing the ability to continue transportation comprehensive development agreements (CDAs), the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Perry administration also lost a great deal of political capital and bargaining power after the special legislative session.

The Legislature renewed TxDOT without much in terms of reforms, but did not approve a bill continuing a list of 13 CDAs — effectively calling a time-out on a six-year expansion of toll roads.

This raises a few questions as to where things are going next with transportation.

Surely, $2 billion in recently released Proposition 12 funds won’t last forever in building freeways. So the next two-to-four years are still anyone’s game, and both sides in the toll road debate agree that CDAs aren’t dead — nor is TxDOT giving in. What projects were stopped?

At least two CDA toll projects will be preserved through 2011 under SB 792 from the 80th session — Highway 161 in Dallas and the Grand Parkway loop around Houston. While forging a deal on those projects may continue, most other CDAs will expire Sept. 1.

A lifeline was cast to 13 projects during the special session as part of SB 3, which would have extended their CDAs on a project-by-project basis. There was not enough legislative will to see the whole list through (LSR, July 3), but members attempted to compromise with a short list — only those projects already agreed to by the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), namely managed lanes on I-35 East, Highway 183 and I-30 in the DFW area.

Bill Noble, executive director of the pro-CDA Texans for Safe and Reliable Transportation, said CDAs made Highway 130 bypass around Austin possible, for example. Projects like I-69 were casualties.

There were 87 toll road projects implemented in Texas, per discussion during the 80th legislative session in 2007. According to committee testimony during the 80th interim, about 400 toll projects were being considered. So is it possible that, by the Legislature’s not continuing CDAs, that nearly 300 would-be toll roads were prevented? Terri Hall of Texans United for Reform and Freedom (TURF), a TxDOT watchdog, thinks so (at least for now).

"I do think that they [toll road lobbyists] are going to keep trying to bring CDAs back up, as there’s so much money behind them. So it’s up to the taxpayers to remain vigilant," she said. "CDAs are the more expensive tool in the toolbox. But that’s the one they keep reaching for." Does TxDOT have any clout left?

Hall claims the support of a large movement of taxpayers who oppose the expansion of toll roads and accumulation of debt from CDA agreements. Noble said he’s certain toll roads remain a popular transportation option among voters as a "tool" in the aforementioned toolbox.

"We want all the tools — and that includes gas tax and indexing," Noble said. "But we don’t believe that a massive gas tax would be politically viable, and that’s what would be required if you didn’t have the option of toll roads."

Hall said allowing international conglomerates (such as Cintra of Spain) to own and manage toll roads in private, behind-closed-doors contracts is less politically viable than proposing upping the gas tax.

TxDOT declined to comment.

Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) thinks there’s plenty of room left for TxDOT to negotiate its future — as well as an extra session in which to debate meaty issues.

"We will need to build roads in the future, and I think that will be the debate over the next two sessions on how we build those roads," Phillips said.

One option to continue CDAs in the future is to give the Legislature oversight over each individual project — a method Phillips said might prove burdensome.

Phillips called for a greater role of toll authorities, such as NTTA and the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA), in the approval process, as a check on TxDOT.

"Conventional wisdom is that projects may be approved on a case-by-case basis rather than a blanket authority through TxDOT," Noble said. "But that’s a cumbersome process … at the end of the day, Texans are going to realize that roads are not going to get better unless all options are on the table, including toll roads."

Noble said TxDOT’s overall standing has been lowered since mid-decade, but there has been some rebound under the leadership of TTC Chair Deirdre Delisi.

"We did some polling when I first got involved, and back then TxDOT was a highly credible entity. And Texans really had a high opinion — far greater than lawmakers,’" Noble said. "And some of that has come down, especially with leadership. But under the leadership of Delisi and Amadeo Saenz, we’ve seen a sea change — that being, they appreciate the openness, the responsiveness, and the efforts to work with Legislature to find solutions. And you look at it in what the Legislature could have done as far as radical changes in Sunset, all that really didn’t happen."

At least until 2011, TxDOT continues to have a friend in the Governor—most recently exemplified by a veto of HB 2142, which would have prevented TxDOT from advertising the use of toll roads.

"Marketing toll roads as a user-fee-based alternative to congested highways is important to relieving congestion on other state roads and keeping Texas moving," Gov. Rick Perry said in his veto proclamation, echoing TxDOT’s ad campaign slogan "Keep Texas Moving."

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, likely Perry’s biggest major challenger in the GOP primary for Texas Governor, called for federal legislation to ban tolls on federally owned roadways — a sign that transportation will be a key issue in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

Will anti-toll road movements keep on?

Noble said anti-toll-road activists, now that they have their way for at least another two years, are going to have to provide solutions — solutions that may not prove popular with their own volunteers. "The only other way to relieve congestion is a massive gas tax increase," he said. "Opponents of toll roads are slowly beginning to trickle out when faced with the question of ‘what’s your answer?’"

Many conservative opponents of toll roads were leery of Sen. John Carona’s (R-Dallas) solution in the form of the Local Option Transportation Plan – most vocal were concerns that the gas tax would be raised in large communities.

True, a motor fuels tax increase (or index to inflation) won’t be popular with some conservatives, Hall said. But there are more issues at stake in her organization than just the CDAs vs. the gas tax debate, such as transparency in contracts.
"Our legislators often don’t have a clue what’s in these contracts — they have no idea what they’re selling off," Hall said, noting that a Cintra contract for the North Tarrant Express near Fort Worth had a charge of 75 cents per mile at peak hours.
"We’re all in favor of a motor fuels tax increase," she said. "But you have to end [Fund 6] diversions before we give you more money. Also, we’ve got to reform TxDOT — getting into the books, looking into the finances, and basically gutting the agency … Until they change the culture at TxDOT, they will continue to have problems and blowback from the public."

What message was sent by the 81st?

A simple message was sent by the refusal of the Legislature to approve CDAs in the 81st regular and special sessions: CDAs are still highly suspect. Whether or not the Legislature’s inaction on CDAs was a referendum on their viability as a transportation solution is debatable.

"I don’t think the special session was specifically that," Phillips said. "I think that referendum occurred during the regular session on the Sunset bill. And it’s pretty clear that the Legislature wants us to have a transparent process, and that it becomes understandable to the public on how roads are being built … and how MPOs interact with the state, environmental studies are conducted, etc. … It’s fairly difficult in such a short time frame to hash these things out and discuss them [CDAs]. The question was in 2007 can we slow down and take some time in the interim to look at it. So tapping on the brake is not such a bad thing for now."

Noble, who said there has been a "thoroughly inadequate hearing on CDAs" in recent sessions, agreed there is room to haggle. "I think it’s a clean slate for us — we know where we stand now, and for a few years," Noble said.

"I don’t see that CDAs are dead," Phillips said, "as long as we make sure they’re approved by a local community."

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