Thursday, July 02, 2009

"A vote for HB 3 would amount to a vote for the Trans-Texas Corridor. "

CDA renewals in jeopardy after House transportation hearing


Mark Lavergne
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2009

At the end of the House Transportation Committee hearing today, Chairman Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) left the CDA renewal bill HB 3 pending -- a routine matter under normal circumstances, but when the governor wants the lawmakers in and out in three days, it means the bill is on life support.

Following the hearing -- during which lawmakers bombarded Texas Department of Transportation assistant executive director Bill Russell with questions about HB 3 -- Pickett said that he liked the bill but did not perceive much support for it among his colleagues in the House.

He said he would continue to work with the committee members in the House and the Senate, as well as the leadership, on the bill, but did not appear to be in any hurry to move the legislation to the floor by Friday as long as his colleagues had serious problems with it.

“We have up to 30 days,” he said.

Things first started looking gloomy for the bill when Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco) launched a tirade against Russell, who had told the committee that “design-build” projects (public toll roads) could be renewed in 2011, whereas “concession-based” projects (i.e. private comprehensive development agreements for toll roads, from whose revenues private companies would benefit) would expire in 2009. Therefore the real reason the legislature was called back was to benefit private companies that look to benefit from concession-based projects, Dunnam said.

“If that’s what we’re here for, is simply to facilitate the private toll roads, y’all can put me down as a no,” Dunnam said to applause in the room.

Russell said that if the bill is not passed, the three projects specifically listed in the bill will be left on the shelf. Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman), the most vocal proponent of the bill during the hearing, argued that if the bill was not passed, there would continue to be hyper-congestion, nonattainment, safety issues and other discontents. Regional Mobility Authorities would be limited in their opportunities to build additional roads if the bill didn’t pass, Phillips and Russell agreed.

Rep. Yvonne Davis (D-Dallas) pressed Russell on what the real transportation needs of the state are and how much they cost. Phillips suggested giving TxDOT 20 to 30 days to research and then the committee could reconvene to discuss the findings.

“TxDOT ought to give us a real assessment because it varies based on who you talk to,” Davis said.

“We all know that we have a deficit, the question is how much of a deficit and what funding solutions we have,” Phillips said.

Several witnesses testified against not only the bill but comprehensive development agreements in general. Hank Gilbert with Texans United for Reform and Freedom told the committee members that a vote for HB 3 would amount to a vote for the Trans-Texas Corridor. Gilbert held a press conference earlier today to call on all legislators to vote no on HB 3 and its companion SB 3.

The safe vote for his colleagues right now is “no,” Pickett said. He chalked up the difficulty surrounding this bill to a continued distrust of TxDOT. He suggested including other projects into the bill besides the three currently there, rather than extending the deadline for CDAs.

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