Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Perry signs legislation to halt private toll roads

But the moratorium excludes virtually all North Texas projects
By CHRISTY HOPPE and JAKE BATSELL - The Dallas Morning News - Monday, June 11, 2007

AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry signed a new transportation law (SB792) Monday that
eases some of the fears over runaway toll roads and gives local
authorities more control over road projects.

The bill was a compromise hammered out in the final days of the
legislative session between the governor, who has championed private
toll roads as a way to quickly build highways
without raising taxes, and
lawmakers, who have felt the wrath of rural landowners and skeptical
urban commuters.

Legislators revisited a 2003 law that many felt had hidden consequences,
such as allowing private firms to take over large swaths of the state
highway system, stripping property owners of their land and discouraging
public entities from competing for toll projects.
"Texas was becoming the test tube for private equity plans," said Rep.

Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who pushed for a two-year moratorium on
private toll deals.

Lawmakers initially – and overwhelmingly – passed a bill that would have
placed more restrictions on the governor's efforts to privatize roads.

Mr. Perry vetoed that bill.

The bill he signed Monday has a partial moratorium in place. But the
two-year freeze was dubbed the "Swiss cheese moratorium" because it's
riddled with exemptions, including virtually all North Texas toll roads
already in the works.

"I am proud to sign this legislation because it will help Texas build
the roads we need to manage our state's tremendous population growth,"
Mr. Perry said.

The bill halts at least one project in San Antonio. And Texas
Transportation Commission members have said the moratorium, despite all
its exemptions, still sends a chilling effect to private investors.

"A seemingly innocuous moratorium is, in effect, a freezing of the
entire program," said Ric Williamson, the commission's chairman, in an
earlier interview.

Mr. Williamson acknowledged that the past five months were humbling for
the Transportation Department.

Lawmakers repeatedly criticized what they described as the agency's (TxDOT)
rogue and arrogant tactics in awarding toll road deals.
"The whole process has been inalterably changed," he said. "We know
clearly what [lawmakers'] concerns are, what they want us to do, what
they don't want us to do. And we will change our behavior accordingly."

The bill gives local entities such as the North Texas Tollway Authority
the first option to build toll projects, limits private toll contracts
to 50 years
and establishes a new process to determine a road's market

On Thursday, transportation commissioners will consider a list of
possible projects to develop under the new legislation, which takes
effect immediately.
As lawmakers sought to curb private toll roads, they also thwarted bids
to raise the state gas tax to keep up with inflation and to expand
transit systems through voter-approved sales-tax hikes. They even toyed
with suspending the gas tax for the summer.
"What people seem to forget in this whole debate about roads is that the
citizens always pay for the roads," said Sen. Robert Nichols,
R-Jacksonville, a former transportation commissioner and a leading
backer of the moratorium. "The question is, how do you want to collect
the money?"
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