Friday, July 03, 2009

"Rick Perry's interest in the state's growing transportation problems appears to be limited to protecting the contracts of private firms."


Legislature spikes Perry's push for CDAs, transportation revolving fund


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN – State lawmakers quickly wrapped up a two-day special session Thursday by approving $2 billion in highway bonds and extending the operations of five agencies – but they spiked Gov. Rick Perry's continued push for toll roads.

Although Perry pressed hard for legislation to allow use of public-private toll roads across the state, both the House and Senate were cool to the idea. And efforts to strike a compromise – including repeated phone calls by the governor and his aides to legislative leaders – fell flat.

"It's time to hit the road," said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, expressing relief that the toll-road bill went nowhere during the special session. Shapiro was among several lawmakers from North Texas who disliked the legislation.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate transportation committee chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, said they gave up on the toll-road bill after talking to local transportation agencies around the state. None said the measure – authorizing so-called comprehensive development agreements for toll roads – is needed at the present time.

"We wanted to see if we needed to extend the time eligibility for these agreements, and what we heard from different transportation agencies is 'no,' " Dewhurst said. "We didn't see any urgency for it."

Carona emphasized that the decision to take no action will not have any effect on highway improvements over the next two years.

"No major project is gong to be left behind between now and 2011," he said. "We'll have ample opportunity to take up this issue again in the 2011 session."

The governor also suffered setback in the transportation bonding bill passed by the House and Senate, which decided against placing bond revenue in a revolving fund that could have been used for a wide variety of projects – including privately operated toll roads. Instead, the money will go into a much more restrictive account and cannot be used to convert free roads into toll roads under a House amendment accepted by the Senate.

Perry thanked lawmakers for their work on the highway bond and state agencies bills but voiced regret over inaction on the toll-road proposal.

"I had hoped to reduce uncertainty regarding several major transportation projects across the state by extending the comprehensive development agreement authority for local and state transportation agencies," he said, understating how hard he pushed for passage of the measure.

"Although the CDA bill did not pass, we will continue to work with legislators and local officials to find transportation solutions."

Both the $2 billion bond program and the bill extending the operations of five state agencies easily passed the House and Senate. Those agencies – the transportation and insurance departments, the Office of Public Insurance Counsel, the racing commission and affordable housing corporation – were authorized for another two years but will be scrutinized by lawmakers in their 2011 session.

The transportation bonds bill took a little wrangling to pass in the House, where members tacked on a handful of amendments to head off the possibility of the funds being used for toll roads. Lawmakers also agreed to allow road-building entities such as the North Texas Tollway Authority to stretch out their financing, as opposed to raising rates.

Opposition to the toll roads bill was strongest in the House. Many lawmakers said they're simply turned off by toll roads altogether. Others said it wasn't possible to vet such a divisive issue in a three-day legislative session.

The bill would have reauthorized the kinds of deals that are proliferating in North Texas, including the LBJ Freeway reconstruction, the North Tarrant Express and the DFW Connector. Without it, projects already in the works won't be affected.

But it could delay, or even derail, toll road projects still in the pipeline, such as State Highway 161 in Dallas County.

A spokesman for gubernatorial hopeful Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison accused Perry of using the special session to line the pockets of corporate toll-road operators, and to pursue the Trans Texas Corridor under a different name.

"Rick Perry's interest in the state's growing transportation problems appears to be limited to protecting the contracts of private firms," Hans Klingler said. "The Trans Texas Corridor and the tolling of roads has been an expensive and expansive assault on the rights of property owners."

A spokesman for Perry fired back at the Hutchison camp.

"Governor Perry will continue to utilize all available resources to address the transportation needs of Texas," Mark Miner said. "Senator Hutchison has been in Washington for 16 years, and Texas continues to be short-changed, receiving only 74 cents back for every tax dollar sent to Washington for roads."

Both Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus said they were delighted to finish up in such a short time.

"Members of the House wanted to pass the bare necessities. They weren't looking to delve very far into substantive policy issues," Straus said, explaining the lack of support for the toll-road bill.

The speaker also said Perry didn't put any pressure on him to steamroll the measure through.

"There were no uneasy conversations about it at all," Straus said. "I don't think there was an urgency."

Several lawmakers questioned Perry's decision to include the toll-road bill on the agenda for the special session, but they also said he deserved credit for not introducing volatile issues that could have forced the session into a partisan standoff, such as the GOP-backed voter ID legislation that was responsible for killing hundreds of non-related bills during the regular session.

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