Thursday, July 02, 2009

"This is a financial scheme to fund roads without the appearance of raising taxes.”

Toll road bills ignite political controversy at special session

Interest groups protest spending bills they claim lack sufficient oversight

Bailouts total $3 trillion with no oversight


Toree Roy
Daily Texan
Copyright 2009

Leaders of various political activist groups in Texas lobbied against two bills Wednesday that they say could increase taxes and allow taxpayer money to be used to fund private transportation projects.

The state Legislature began a special session Wednesday to address three bills concerning the reauthorization of five state agencies before the next regular session. The legislation being considered would allow the state to issue $2 billion in bonds for highway improvements and extend the authority for the Texas Department of Transportation to enter into agreements with private companies to build roads.

Controversial House Bill 1 will allow $1 billion of the $2 billion voter-approved bond money to go to general revenue for TxDOT. The $2 billion is part of $5 billion approved by voters in 2007. The other half will go toward creating the Texas Transportation Revolving Fund, which will provide financial assistance for transportation projects.

“This is an outside agency, which will not be under control of the state,” said Hank Gilbert, a board member of Texas Uniting Reform and Freedom and HB 1 opponent. “We need to make sure that taxpayer money cannot be accessed by private entities and that [TxDOT] cannot use money from the Teacher and Retirement and Employee Retirement Systems.”

Gilbert said the group would support the bill under consideration if it would state directly that taxpayer money and money from other systems would not be used to fund private entities.

“This is not a privatized or free market plan issue,” said Robert Butler, executive director of the Texas Libertarian Party. “It is creating a financial scheme to fund roads without the appearance of raising taxes.”

Another point of controversy is House Bill 2, which deals with comprehensive development agreements, or CDAs. The agreements are toll contracts privatizing and selling the construction of Texas highways to the highest bidder. These agreements are set to end Aug. 31 but if this bill passes, the date will be extended for four years.

The agreements allow for the state to enter into contracts with private entities to build toll roads and allow a portion of money collected from these roads to go to these private companies, said John Butler, executive director of Texans for Accountable Government.

“CDAs do not work — they’re failing all over the country,” Gilbert said.

The groups also addressed issues on the Trans-Texas Corridor. The corridor was a project created by TxDOT to create a superhighway that would ease with traffic congestion along Interstate Highway 35 and also help to create massive trade corridors for Mexico, Canada and the U.S.

Although the project was set aside in January, the agency is still trying to create Interstate Highway 69 and another highway that would run parallel to IH-35. The roads would provide better transportation, said TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott.

“There is definitely a possibility that projects along I-69 and I-35 could be advanced, but that will only happen if the legislature is comfortable,” Lippincott said. “We’re confident they will come up with a good strategy so that we can move forward.”

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