March 09, 2007
Toll road moratorium

It's been a rough session for the Trans Texas Corridor, hasn't it? I've not followed all the ins and outs - Eye on Williamson has been an excellent source, as has Burka - but the general picture is clear, and if you've been reading around you've probably come across the phrase "buyer's remorse" more than once.

The latest bad news for Corridor fans is the support that an effort to impose a moratorium has gained this week.

Dozens of state representatives have signed on to the bill that would place a moratorium on any public-private contracts such as the one for Highway 121. The winning bidder, Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA, agreed to pay $2.1 billion in upfront money and $700 million over the life of the 50-year contract for the rights to operate the Highway 121 toll road in Collin and Denton counties.

The moratorium bill's House sponsor, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said a state auditor's critical assessment of toll road financing - coupled with the Highway 121 contract's upfront payment and generous profit margin - has led many lawmakers to question if Texas drivers are being sold down the road.

"I don't think it's too much to ask to take two years to look at contracts that will govern our grandkids 50 years from now," she said.

The bill is aimed at "alarming contracts" being signed for toll roads, lawmakers said. It would eliminate noncompete clauses that could prevent the state from building new roads or maintaining existing ones near a new toll road. It also would put some limits on tolls to ensure they remain reasonable.

Under the proposal, a private company could not collect revenue from or operate a tollway. Nor could a toll project entity such as the North Texas Tollway Authority sell a toll road to a private interest.

In the Senate, at least 25 of the 31 senators have signed onto the bill that is being carried by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. Before winning election last year, Mr. Nichols served on the Texas Transportation Commission - the five-member board appointed by Gov. Rick Perry that oversees highway policy in the state.

"When a former commissioner of the Texas Department of Transportation and head of the subcommittee on the Trans-Texas Corridor introduces this kind of legislation, it makes a very huge statement that we need to slow down," said Ms. Kolkhorst.

Indeed. I wish someone had asked Sen. Nichols what prompted this action. Did he feel this way about the TTC while he was a TxDOT Commissioner, or has he had a change of heart? Either way, it'd be interesting to know.

More from Burka and Kilday Hart, and a reaction from Cintra Zachry, in which they almost sound relieved. Which distinguishes them from the Governor's office - as Houtopia notes, they're as defiant as ever on this. Finally, McBlogger thinks the Lege should go farther, and he joins Eye on Williamson in taking apart a disingenuous pro-toll editorial. Check 'em out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 09, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Kudos to Sen Nichols for some much needed sanity -- there are scrupulous people in Austin after all! We've already paid for many of these roads let's not give away the farm to line the pockets of Rick Perry and cronies. The very idea of foreign privitization of critical US assets is not in best interest.

Posted by: Brent on March 13, 2007 3:11 PM