April 07, 2007
Toll road moratorium passes Senate committee

When last we checked, State Sen. John Carona had flipflopped on the two-year toll road moratorium bill SB1267, saying it would not get heard in committee. In the end, however, Carona did bring the bill up, and it passed out of committee unanimously, albeit with some changes.

"With the time it covers, and the amendments, it does little more than make a political statement," said John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

Carona, who voted for the bill in committee despite saying in recent days that he doubts its worth, said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, presiding officer of the Senate, had urged him to give the bill a vote.

But the bill was largely defanged on its way to committee passage. It exempts two road projects in Tarrant County that would add toll lanes to existing highways: the proposed Trinity River Parkway toll road through downtown Dallas and all of El Paso County.

Carona specifically mentioned opposition from Tarrant to the original SB1267 as the reason for his change. I'm in half-a-loaf mode here - if that's the best we can do, that's the best we can do.

The moratorium, were it passed and signed by Gov. Rick Perry (unlikely, given his condemnation this week of the concept), might or might not apply to the Texas 121 project northeast of Dallas.

The Texas Transportation Department has announced that a consortium led by Spanish toll road concessionaire Cintra would build and run that 26-mile road for 50 years, the second such contract in Texas. But if the law were to take effect before a contract is signed, then the ban would apply to Texas 121.

That road aside, Carona said, given the exceptions and the early status of Trans-Texas Corridor work, there are basically no other pending toll road projects in the state that would be affected by SB 1267.

But Nichols, a former Texas Transportation Commission member who in recent months developed concerns about the state giving away too much in toll road leases, said his bill needs to pass.

"We don't have the luxury of time," Nichols said. "If we wait too long, these contracts will be signed, and Texas will be trapped in agreements that will hold our transportation system hostage for the next half-century."

I agree with Sen. Nichols. Let's put a stop to this for now, and hope that saner heads can prevail in two years' time.

Not that Gov. Perry sees it this way, of course. But then, I did say "saner heads".

With U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters offering her support, Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday lashed out against legislation that would impose a two-year moratorium on toll-road privatization.

Perry said the proposal, co-sponsored by strong majorities in the House and Senate and reflecting the public controversy over the Trans Texas Corridor, would cost Texas critical business expansion opportunities.

"Our message today is that building needed infrastructure is essential to creating jobs and attracting economic development investments in Texas. And you can't accomplish that with a two-year moratorium on needed road projects," he said.

Mmm hmmm. What gave you the impression that people were receptive to this message, Governor? Was it the 75%+ support in the Lege to impose that two-year breathing period you so strongly oppose?

Of course, Perry may not have to worry, since one of his fellow 25-percenters on this issue has his back.

State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, said Wednesday evening that if SB 1267, the moratorium bill, reaches the House, he will bring it up in the House Transportation Committee. Krusee, a consistent supporter of giving the Texas Department of Transportation broad powers to create toll roads, chairs that committee.

"If it comes out of the Senate, I will give it a hearing in the House," Krusee said. "However, I continue to think it's a mistake to take away our cities' only tool for building new infrastructure without giving them a replacement tool such as gas tax indexing, or more money from the state budget."

The moratorium bill would actually take away just one tool for addressing highway needs -- long-term leases with private companies to build and operate toll roads -- and would do so for just two years. And the bill, as amended Wednesday in a Senate committee before that panel passed it, would exempt most projects currently on the cusp of reaching agreements. Even if the bill becomes law, the state and local toll road agencies would still be able to plan and build toll roads.

In other words, don't expect a fair and balanced hearing from Krusee. He'll be going through the motions so as to make it look like an accident when the bill gets snuffed. Eye on Williamson and McBlogger have more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 07, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles