"The process isn't always designed to engage the public," said Robin Holzer, who chairs the coalition. "We want to solve problems in the planning stage before contracts are let and before the bulldozers break ground."
The coalition wants road-building entities, such as the Harris County Toll Road Authority, to seek approval of their projects from affected residents or municipalities and hold at least three public meetings — day, evening and weekend.
Those changes aren't likely to happen soon, lawmakers say, so the group is taking what it can get.
Rep. Martha Wong, R-Houston, has passed a bill requiring longer public notice about upcoming hearings. Toll road hearings are conducted as part of regular Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, which are held downtown every other Tuesday morning.
Some aborted attempts in 2003 and 2004 to convert existing highways or turn some roads under construction into toll roads, made it inevitable that the Legislature would fill in the blanks on conversion rules. The two-year-old law, for instance, doesn't define when a road is considered truly free and, thus, in need of an official conversion, which requires votes by various appointed boards and the governor's signature.
That led the Transportation Department to argue that if a road or an expansion project had not yet opened to traffic, it could be changed to a toll road by the agency staff. An attempt to do that on an expansion of U.S. 183 in late 2003 was dropped after a public furor.
"A lot of people were upset with that," [Rep. Mike] Krusee said during the debate on his bill. "They said, 'When you announced the building of this road, you announced it as a free road.' "
Under both Krusee's and [Sen. Todd] Staples' bills, if a road is already under construction as a free road, making it a toll road would require the conversion process in many cases. However, if the expanded road would still have as many free lanes as before, then conversion wouldn't be necessary. And if a local metropolitan planning agency designated a road under construction as a toll road before this May 1, conversion likewise would not be necessary.
Taken together, those exceptions exempt the remaining roads in the controversial Central Texas toll road plan from the litany of official votes needed to make them toll roads.
Both bills would also make conversions more difficult by requiring public votes.