Texas Senate committee considers bills to curb private tolling

| 4/19/2007

Since the Texas Legislature opened early this year dozens of bills have been offered to curb the state’s tollway powers. A handful of bills that are moving forward include a provision to place a two-year moratorium on private toll roads.

The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee took up a pair of bills Wednesday, April 18, that are intended to buy the state more time to review the effects of handing over roadways, such as the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, to private business.

Supporters say the state needs more time to review leasing plans.

“There are enough questions out there to tap the breaks and take time to look before we leap into these 50-year contracts that we’re signing with private equity companies and tying up our ability to receive revenues off those roads,” Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, told “Land Line Now” on XM Satellite Radio.

“We need to make sure the Trans-Texas Corridor is viable. We need to look at the toll rates. We need to look at the noncompetes in there. We need to look at the buy back clauses. There are tons and tons of questions.”

A far-reaching transportation bill – HB1929 – was unveiled to committee members that includes the two-year freeze on privatization contracts and would give regional authorities more say about local projects.

Sponsored by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, the bill would exempt from the two-year moratorium several projects in North Texas. The committee unanimously endorsed another moratorium bill – HB1892 – that the House already approved.

If both bills continue to move forward, lawmakers in both chambers would need to agree to one version before it could head to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk – where a veto stamp is likely. The governor has condemned the concept because of concerns about congestion and the complications it could create for attracting business.

To override a veto, legislation must pass the House and Senate by a two-thirds majority.

Carona’s bill includes a provision to allow the Texas Department of Transportation to transfer road-developing authority to the state’s 24 metropolitan planning organizations, The Dallas Morning News reported. The regional bodies set priorities for road projects in their region.

Another provision in the bill would allow TxDOT to designate truck-only lanes on state highways, the Austin American-Statesman reported. It also would cap the length of leasing contracts at 40 years. Texas law now allows for contracts to run up to 70 years.

The bill also would set up procedures for the state to buy back roads after private groups take over. In addition, it would narrow clauses that place limits on competing roads.

The transportation panel is likely to bring the bill up for a vote next week.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

Staff Writer Reed Black contributed to this report.