Thursday, May 24, 2007

UPDATED: White smoke emerges on transportation bill

By Ben Wear - Austin-American Statesman -Wednesday, May 23, 2007
There’s a deal afoot on SB 792, and it doesn’t include Amendment 13.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, one of the Senate conferees on the bill, said agreement was reached earlier this afternoon and final drafting touches are underway. Carona said all five Senate conferees are on board. However one of them, state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said later that he is not in on the deal at this point.

On the House side, Carona said that four of the five House representatives are on board. That doesn’t include state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who according to one House member was in the governor’s office during the 4 o’clock hour discussing the issue.

Carona said the governor, wielding a veto pen for a bill for which no override is possible, has the upper hand, especially because Rick Perry pretty much is happy with the law as it stands now.

“We have far more to lose on this than the governor,” Carona said. “And he’s given in to the will of the Legislature on a great many points.”

Those points, however, do not include Kolkhorst’s Amendment 13, which would have included so-called “facilities agreements” in the ban on private toll road contracts. The Texas Department of Transportation has already signed what is called a comprehensive development agreement for TTC-35, which would be a tollway parallel to Interstate 35. Individual segments would be built under those facility agreements.

Carona said that no such agreements will be ready to go during the next two years, at least for highways, because of the time it takes to get final environmental approval from the federal government. The department, however, might be ready to go with a new freight railroad from Dallas to Laredo, and would like to preserve the ability to do that before the Legislature comes back in 2009.

“The rail project has never been an issue,” Carona said.

Both houses will now have to consider the conference committee report in up-or-down majority votes. A Senate vote could come as early as Thursday. The House, with its 24-hour layout rule, the ongoing fracas over Speaker Tom Craddick and a likely oppositional push by Kolkhorst, might take longer.

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