SPECIAL REPORT: Lawmakers pursue accord on TX toll road bill

| 5/14/2007

Monday, May 14, 2007 – A reworked transportation bill was revealed Monday, May 14, after several state officials spent the past few days working to hammer out an agreement on toll roads. What happens next is uncertain.

The effort is primarily intended to buy the state more time to review the effects of handing over roadways to private groups. A similar bill passed both chambers in Austin by wide margins but has come under fire in the past week.

Gov. Rick Perry has threatened to veto the bill – HB1892 – on his desk that some fear could threaten the state’s federal highway funds and possibly kill key road projects. Technical errors also are causing problems that could lead to the bill’s demise.

Supporters of placing a two-year moratorium on toll road leases with private groups went back to the drawing board last week to reshape a separate bill – SB792 – that addresses several concerns voiced by the governor, state and federal officials.

Advocates for toll protections are hopeful that changing some provisions in the now 81-page bill will appease critics and continue to hold the support of enough members of the statehouse in case the governor opts to use his veto power to kill it.

The compromise 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 50 years, instead of 40-year limits sought in the original legislation – HB1892.

Both bills would exempt projects in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso. The Senate version added exemptions for State Route 99 near Houston and the Interstate 69 corridor in the Rio Grande Valley.

A formula to allow the state to buy back roads also was reworked. Any deals would be based on original estimates of toll revenue for the life of the project instead of basing the price on what the company had invested in the road.

The compromise bill also would require any future toll road projects to undergo a “market valuation” to determine their value. Local toll road agencies would get first crack at projects if they can muster the up-front money, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

The bill will need to move quickly through the Senate and House before it could head to the governor’s suite. With a possible veto hanging over their heads, lawmakers want to get the measure through both chambers by the middle of the week. Quick passage would allow them time to override a veto if the governor chooses to take that route.

Support from two-thirds of the legislators in the House and Senate would be needed for a successful override attempt.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor