“The Legislature continues to say 'no' to private toll roads, and TxDOT continues to find new ways to come up with the authority for them.”
By Michael W. Shapiro
State House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, this week picked state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, to be chairman of a House subcommittee on toll roads. Dunnam opposes privately run toll roads.
Dunnam said Thursday that as subcommittee chairman, he intends to provide legislators with a way to strip the Texas Department of Transportation of its authority to lease toll roads to for-profit companies.
“The Legislature continues to say no to private toll roads, and TxDOT continues to come up with new ways to come up with the authority for them,” Dunnam said Thursday.
Dunnam said his subcommittee will try to explain in simple terms “each one of these roundabout ways they might find funding for toll roads, and if (legislators) want to stop that, provide direction on how to do that.”
Toll roads have been a hot topic in Texas since Gov. Rick Perry announced plans to build the Trans-Texas Corridor in 2002.
State officials laid out a public-private partnership for the highway — which would have paralleled Interstate 35 — between the state of Texas, a San Antonio road construction company and a European toll-road developer.
But public opposition to the highway was strong and included concerns about the amount of private land the state was going to have to take through eminent domain.
Department of Transportation officials declared the corridor project dead last year.
Dunnam said, however, that transportation officials may still have methods of building private toll roads. He pointed to private toll roads built with funds from a federal program called the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA.
The first road ever built under the TIFIA program, a 9.3-mile highway in Southern California, declared bankruptcy this week.
The toll road, operated by a subsidiary of an Australian conglomerate, was pricier than expected because of construction delays. It also missed revenue targets because far fewer drivers were using the road than originally anticipated.
Dispute over private firms
Advocates of private toll roads have noted that often private companies are willing to make investments in new highways when money is hard to come by.
But many in the legislature, including Pickett, don’t appear to be convinced that private tolls are the way to go.
Pickett butted heads with the Department of Transportation during the last legislative session.
Pickett said he chose Dunnam to lead the subcommittee because Dunnam “really understands how Texans feel about (toll roads), and he has demonstrated a willingness to ask the tough questions. And now is the time for tough questions.”
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