SPECIAL REPORT: Toll road bill nears passage in Texas

| 5/15/2007

Tuesday, May 15, 2007 – With the threat of a gubernatorial veto and a summer session hanging over their heads, the Texas senators Monday, May 14, unanimously approved a reworked transportation bill that would allow several toll projects throughout the state to move forward.

Several state officials spent the better part of a week working to hammer out an agreement to satisfy Gov. Rick Perry’s concerns in another transportation bill sitting atop his desk. The governor has said he would veto that bill – HB1892 – because it transfers too much road-building authority from the state to local governments.

He also expressed concern the House version could threaten the state’s federal highway funds and possibly kill key road projects.

After the vote that cleared the way for the revised effort – SB792 – to advance to the House, Perry signaled that he would allow the Senate version to become law if it passes both chambers in its current form.

“This is a good compromise that allows projects important to local communities to go forward, recognizing that Texas is a fast-growing state with real congestion concerns that cannot be put on hold,” Perry said in a released statement. He had threatened to call lawmakers back to capitol this summer if they didn’t address his concerns with the effort.

The compromise bill did preserve a two-year moratorium on most private toll roads. The freeze is intended to buy the state more time to review the effects of handing over roadways to private groups.

However, both bills would exempt projects in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso. Senate lawmakers added protections for projects in Houston and the Rio Grande Valley.

A formula to allow the state to buy back roads 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.

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.

In addition, the compromise bill 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.

“It’s a concept to determine the value of a project and what free roads might be built as a result of the toll project,” Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, told the Houston Chronicle. He said it’s intended “to establish a benchmark” to determine a project’s value and whether it can support toll-free options in the region.

A leading state lawmaker reluctantly voted in favor of the toll bill. However, Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, said the state has few options to pay for road work because he and his counterparts have declined to increase the state’s fuel tax for nearly 20 years. The result has been a transportation funding shortfall that now runs in the tens of billions.

“Is it my first choice? Candidly, it’s my last choice. But communities simply have no alternative until the Legislature sees fit to bring current our (fuel) tax rate,” Carona told the Austin American-Statesman.

The compromise bill has been forwarded to the House where the County Affairs Committee wasted little time in advancing it to the chamber floor. It could come up for consideration there as early as the morning of Wednesday, May 16.

In case the governor changes his mind about signing the bill, leaders in the statehouse are hopeful they can hand Perry the bill as early as Thursday, May 17. That would allow them enough time before the session ends May 28 for a veto override attempt.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor