"Why does Senator Robert Nichols continue beating the toll road drum? The explanation may lie in his contributor list."
Senator Robert Nichols and Toll Roads
(For Part 1 click [HERE])
By Roger Gray
KYTX (East Texas)
In the last legislative session, the future of toll roads was on the line.
But one area state senator was more involved than most. In fact some critics say the fix was in.
"You can't do toll roads in rural Texas. It won't work," says State Senator Kevin Eltife.
Yes, the original Trans Texas Corridors were huge, and controversial.
Whitehouse rancher and toll road critic Hank Gilbert called it, "the largest land grab in the history of the U.S."
Senator Eltife agreed. "It's a total property right's mess."
Gilbert added, "I don't think the people of Texas, rural and urban, are going to allow that to happen."
And Austin seemed to get the message.
"I think there's no question, the Trans Texas corridor is dead," Eltife concluded.
But some advocates clung to the idea of foreign companies building and running toll roads as private enterprises. Eltife is an opponent. "They should never be owned by a private company, ever. That's a gold mine for the state." As is Gilbert, of Texans United for Reform and Freedom. "Comprehensive Development Agreements that would allow private investors to come in, plan, build, operate, maintain, the whole nine yards."
Eltife agreed, "The state ought to own them. They ought to be a small piece of the puzzle." State Senator Robert Nichols "seemed" to agree when we spoke to him by phone during the session. "The people of East Texas are clear," he said. "They do not want the East Texas Corridor. But they do want to develop Interstate 69."
But did Sen. Nichols want to insure that private toll road contracts were a part of that I-69 development? He added an amendment to his transportation bill that seems to guarantee a contractor couldn't lose money.
Gilbert explained, "You have one of our own East Texas Republican senators is offering an amendment to his own bill which would guarantee a profit. To me that kind of goes against capitalism."
Nichols, though, disagreed. "There is language related to buy backs, but there is absolutely no guarantee whatever that anybody will ever get any of their debt back."
But, we have a copy of an e-mail sent out by toll road lobbyist Gary Bushell, and it says,
"...we have reached an agreement with Senator Nichols on a buyout provision...that provides protection of their position in the event they find themselves upside down on their debt to fair market value...I want to thank Senator Robert Nichols and his chief of staff Steven Albright for making this outcome possible."
Nichols doesn't think that's what he did. "Well, it's incorrect, because that's not true."
Gilbert concluded, "That's not very free market."
So, according to one lobbyist, Senator Robert Nichols went to bat for private toll road contractors.
"That's crazy," he protested. "No. I don't know who told you that, but that's nuts."
I responded, "Well, I've got an email from a lobbyist who says that's exactly what you did."
Nichols again disagreed, "Well, it's incorrect, because that's not true."
"So this lobbyist is wrong," I replied.
"If that's your interpretation of what he says," Nichols responded. "I'm not looking at whatever it is you're reading."
"I read you exactly what he said, " I said. "that provides protection of their position in the event they find themselves upside down on their debt to fair market value.'"
"Ok, I did not write that." He concluded.
Toll road critic Hank Gilbert is skeptical.
"At any point in time, this developer comes to the realization that they're not getting the return on investment they anticipated from this road, they can sell it back to the state at that time and with this amendment, they're guaranteed not to lose money."
Nichols again protested, "If you're saying the State of Texas or any entity is going to guarantee an investor his money back, no. Not correct."
But we have a copy of the amendment and it says.
".the fair market value of the private entity's interest...is not less than the (entity's) outstanding debt at that time plus other reasonable costs."
In short, they get out at least what they've put in.
So why would Nichols continue beating the toll road drum? The explanation may lie in his contributor list.
His top donor by far, James Pitcock of Williams Brothers Construction of Houston, the second largest TxDOT contractor for toll roads and they only gave money to one candidate in 2008, Robert Nichols.
But Nichols still insists toll roads aren't a certainty.
"So, it's your contention that even though these CDA's, comprehensive development agreements are in HB300," I asked, "we're not talking toll roads for East Texas."
"Well, now, that's a different question." He replied. "You have toll roads in Tyler."
And Robert Nichol's tried to push these CDA's again in the special session last week. He didn't succeed.
Apparently, as long as the political money is there, toll road advocates will keep pitching.
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