Sunday, July 05, 2009

"Like a pig laying in a cool pool of slop in hundred-degree weather.”

Inaction pleases opponents

pig in mud


By Josh Baugh
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN — At the end of the 81st Legislature's special session last week, toll-road opponents went home happy — like “a pig laying in a cool pool of slop,” as one of them put it.

The agency poised to bring toll roads to San Antonio, meanwhile, was left looking toward the 82nd Legislature in 2011, with hopeful expectation that lawmakers then will extend the life of a controversial road-building tool that could pave the way for new toll roads in San Antonio and elsewhere.

In a speedy two-day special session that wrapped up well before dinner Thursday, Texas lawmakers rested on the laurels of two pieces of legislation that extend the life of several state agencies, including the Texas Department of Transportation, and the funding of road projects.
They took the safe road on the hot-button bill that would have extended comprehensive development agreements, or CDAs, letting it die in committee and kicking the issue down the road to a later date — though its proponents vowed to bring it up again at the earliest opportunity.

The controversial measure was vehemently opposed by Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, or TURF — a grassroots group that fights toll roads across the state — whose members could scarcely contain their glee.

“Man, we couldn't be any happier,” TURF board member Hank Gilbert said. “I think it's kind of like a pig laying in a cool pool of slop in hundred-degree weather.”
The highly controversial element of CDAs, known as concession contracts, allow private companies to design, build and operate toll roads, and then collect revenue from them for at least the next five decades. The less controversial component of CDAs is the “design-build” agreement, which keeps control of the project with the government agency that built it.

That's a distinction that often gets lost in the vitriolic toll-road debate, and one that Alamo Regional Mobility Authority officials tried to impress on lawmakers during the special session.

Rep. David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio — perhaps TURF's best friend among the Bexar County delegation — said CDAs are nothing more than a way for wealthy private company owners to make even more money. His solution to congestion problems is rooted in the statewide gas tax, which for years has been raided to pay for nontransportation projects. Leibowitz acknowledged the difference between concession contracts and design-build contracts but said the latter is just a “lesser evil.”

But by all accounts, there was no urgency for legislators to take up the issue in the special session because no projects were at risk. There will be building pressure, however, to address CDAs in 2011 because the RMA wants to use design-build contracts to develop the U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 corridors.

By then, Gilbert says, it may be a moot point. In a few months, TURF plans to announce a “more conventional” plan for dealing with congestion problems — one that should receive widespread support from grassroots groups and industry alike, he said. Gilbert wasn't willing to provide further detail.

That aside, lawmakers say they plan to address CDAs in 2011, and Alamo RMA Executive Director Terry Brechtel said she's confident they'll authorize the use of the contracts.

“We have complete confidence that CDA authority will be extended in 2011, specifically the design-build piece that we're interested in,” she said, drawing a nuanced distinction among the contract models that fall under CDAs.

While the bill's failure won't immediately affect any projects in San Antonio, the RMA will push for CDA extension in 2011 because it plans to use design-build contracts to add capacity to U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. By the next Legislature, the RMA will have spent some $18 million on environmental studies for expansion on the two highways. RMA officials say those projects aren't in jeopardy even if CDAs were to die in 2011 because the agency could use traditional low-bid construction contracts rather than design-build contracts.

It's important to note that while the RMA has never ruled out the use of concession agreements, Brechtel said that there's no support to use that form of financing in San Antonio. “Our county judge has not supported concessions. So until our county judge supports concessions, we will not support concessions,” she said. “It's going to take political will to do a private concession in San Antonio, and I don't see the political will.”

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