Friday, January 08, 2010

Cashing in: Former Bush Transportation Secretary Mary Peters continues to push privatized toll roads in Texas as a paid consultant

Bush transportation secretary urges Texas to re-authorize private toll roads


Michael Lindenberger
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

Texas lawmakers should reauthorize private toll roads in the Lone Star State when they return to Austin in 2011, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters told Texans Thursday.

With little likelihood that Congress will pass meaningful transportation reform, or find long-term funding solutions, in 2010, Peters said states will do well to send strong messages that they are doing their part to solve their transportation challenges. Toll roads, and the ability to attract private investors to pay for them, are one way many states, including Texas, have used to do just that, she said.

Under Gov. Rick Perry, Texas emerged as the leader among states in pursuing private toll roads but that momentum was halted last year, when the Legislature allowed the legal authority for most private toll roads in Texas to lapse.

"That moratorium on public private partnerships should be removed," she said. "The state of Texas should put that in abeyance. Restoring (private toll roads) here in Texas could show the federal government that you are really serious about tackling your own transportation problems."

Zachry American Infrastructure, in partnership with ACS [Actividades de Construcción y Servicios], was chosen by TxDOT as the Master Developer for Interstate 69 in Texas. Zachry American Infrastructure partnered with Cintra to form SH 130 Concession Company, which is developing SH 130 segments 5 and 6.

Peters is now a paid consultant -- or "senior adviser" -- to Zachry American Infrastructure, a private toll road (and other infrastructure) developer affiliated with Zachry Construction, a Texas construction company founded in 1924. TxDOT tapped the infrasture development firm to provide a master plan for Interstate 69 in Texas, and the company joined with Cintra to develop SH 130 in Austin.

Peters spoke at the annual Texas Transportation Forum, a talk fest sponsored by the Texas Department of Transportation involving hundreds of engineers, local officials, financiers and others.

The issue of private toll roads will return when the 2011 session of the Texas Legislature begins. Both candidates for governor -- Perry, the incumbent, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison -- have said they support private toll roads, though Hutchison has said Perry has placed too much emphasis on tolls in general as governor.

Congress has been struggling with transportation financing for more than a year, as the 2005 authorization bill formally expired last year. It has been extended by a series of emergency spending measures, but states like Texas have faced uncertainty about whether they can count on the federal government to provide the funding needed for projects currently under construction.

She said rather than bite the bullet and pass the massive reauthorization bill -- one version of which, introduced in the House last year, would cost $500 billion -- Congress will opt instead to pass the Jobs for Main Street bill as a kind of second stimulus, make a few changes to keep the highway trust fund solvent and put off the tougher questions about transportation funding until 2011, she said.

The jobs bill, lampooned by Republicans as "son of stimulus," totals $154 billion, she said.

"I do think the Jobs for Main Street bill will pass this year, in some form, but I think it will be passed at the expense of a long-term reauthorization bill," she said. "I just don't think the political will is there (to pass transportation reauthorization).

If the jobs act does become law -- and it faces opposition in the Senate -- it would mean nearly $40 billion more for American highways, perhaps as soon as later this year. That's almost as much as the states received for roads and bridges in 2009 as part of the first -- (and much larger) stimulus package.

Texas would receive about $2.5 billion, about the same it received in 2009.

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