SPECIAL REPORT: Texas governor threatens special session on toll roads

| 5/10/2007

Thursday, May 10, 2007 – Texas Gov. Rick Perry has told state lawmakers they should make plans to return to the Capitol for a special session if they don’t re-write a nearly 60-page transportation bill that is sitting on his desk.

The governor said legislators need to work in the time remaining before the regular session ends to fix the bill, which is primarily intended to buy the state more time to review the effects of handing over roadways to private groups.

While a two-year moratorium on toll road leases with private groups is a major part of the bill and has drawn a lot of attention, Perry is focusing his ire on another part of the bill.

His biggest gripe about the legislation is a provision that would give local toll agencies priority in building toll routes. It also would put limits on tolling contracts between the state and private companies.

Those provisions could deal a serious blow to Perry’s transportation policy. The plan includes the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor project.

House and Senate lawmakers are said to be working on how to address concerns about the bill – HB1892. One leading senator predicted a solution within a few days.

“We are working carefully with the governor to resolve the conflict and avoid the veto of the legislation,” Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, told “Land Line Now” on XM Satellite Radio. “However, we feel very strongly that if we are unsuccessful in that effort there are sufficient votes in both houses to override the governor’s veto.”

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.

Aside from the moratorium and local toll road provisions, the bill would require a study of the long-term effects of public-private partnerships. It also would reduce the 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.

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.”

“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,” she said

Perry has until Friday, May 18, 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.

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 vote of 27-4 in favor also is more than the two-thirds majority that would be needed for an override.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

Staff Writer Reed Black contributed to this report.