Temporary toll ban moves to Texas governor

| 5/4/2007

The Texas House voted 139-1 Wednesday, May 2, to give final approval to a bill that is intended to buy the state more time to review the effects of handing over roadways to private groups. The vote cleared the way for the bill to move to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk.

The bill – HB1892 – would place a two-year moratorium on toll road leases with private groups. It also would require a study of the long-term effects of public-private partnerships.

Perry, who has touted the benefits of his proposed Trans-Texas Corridor project, had urged lawmakers to reject the freeze but has stopped short of promising a veto. The margin of approval in the House showed it has more than enough support to withstand an attempt by the governor to kill it. The Senate approved it by a vote of 27-4.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said the protections are needed because of concerns the state is giving away too much in toll road leases.

“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,” Kolkhorst 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.”

The governor has 10 days to decide whether to sign the bill, let it become law without his signature, or veto it. If he chooses to use his veto stamp, lawmakers would have some time before the scheduled May 28 adjournment for a veto-override vote.

Perry’s office released a statement Friday, April 27, regarding the moratorium concept.

“I will review this bill carefully because we cannot have public policy in this state that shuts down road construction, kills jobs, harms air quality, prevents access to federal highway dollars, and creates an environment within local government that is ripe for political corruption.”

He also said the bill could jeopardize federal highway money. Some lawmakers dispute that argument.

The moratorium would exempt projects in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso. Advocates of the exemptions say the affected regions can’t afford a delay in relieving traffic congestion, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Regional authorities also would be given more say about local projects. Another provision in the bill would reduce the maximum length of leasing contracts from 70 years to 40 years.

A formula also would be set up for the state to buy back roads and limit clauses that restrict new roads that compete with toll roads.

The governor may have yet another toll-road freeze bill to contend with as the close of the session draws near. The House Transportation Committee unanimously approved a separate, less-lengthy moratorium bill – SB1267.

That bill, which already passed the Senate, still must clear the full House. But Perry could see it as a better option because it doesn’t include noncompete clauses and expanded powers for local toll road authorities.

A spokeswoman for the governor said he would rather build roads instead of having to choose between moratorium bills.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

Staff Writer Reed Black contributed to this report.