Several bills tackle Trans-Texas Corridor plans

| 2/2/2007

A Texas state lawmaker has introduced legislation to sideline the planned Trans-Texas Corridor project. Several other efforts filed in the Legislature also would rein in Gov. Rick Perry’s $184 billion pet project.

One bill offered by Rep. John Liebowitz, D-San Antonio, would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from buying land or issuing contracts for the corridor project. The corridor plan calls for private contractors to build and operate billions of dollars’ worth of toll roads in the state.

The tab for driving along the corridor would run nearly 50 cents a mile for large trucks and about 15 cents for cars.

Liebowitz told local radio station WOLA the bill – HB857 – is necessary because the corridor would “destroy rural Texas as we know it.”

As planned, each route of the 4,000 mile network of transportation corridors would include separate lanes for passenger vehicles and large trucks, freight railways, high-speed commuter railways as well as utility zones.

If the entire series of proposed corridors were built, Liebowitz said they would displace nearly a million acres of land – most of it farm land.

A separate bill offered by Liebowitz is intended to keep state highways toll free.

The bill – HB719 – would forbid TxDOT from turning state highways into toll routes. It also would prohibit allowing those roadways to be leased or sold to private groups.

Liebowitz isn’t alone in his pursuit to curb efforts to privatize portions of the state’s roadways.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, has crafted several bills that are intended to minimize the attractiveness for groups to pursue deals with the state to build roads in return for keeping revenues.

One bill would bar the state from entering into non-compete agreements for toll roads. The measure – SB149 – would prohibit language in bond sales documents that prevent TxDOT from building highways that would serve as an alternative route for truckers and others who don’t want to pay tolls to reach their destination.

With the state Transportation Department calling for the 70-year cap removed on public-private contracts, another bill offered by Carona would reduce the length of contracts, the Austin American-Statesman reported. The bill – SB275 – would limit the duration of contracts to 30 years.

Another measure – SB256 – would prohibit TxDOT from accepting upfront payments from private groups to build toll roads. The effort is in response to the Spanish-Australian consortium Cintra-Zachry offering $1.2 billion to build part of the corridor, the American-Statesman reported.

In hopes of creating alternatives to privatizing roadways, two other bills written by Carona would help the state generate more revenue for transportation.

The first bill – SB165 – would allow the tax collected at the fuel pump to increase automatically. If approved, the state’s 20-cent-per-gallon tax on diesel and gas, as well as the federal rate of 18 cents per gallon would be tied to the rate of inflation. The change would allow the taxes in the state to increase on an annual basis.

The second bill – SB126 – is intended to make sure all transportation-related revenue is allotted to the Texas Mobility Fund. The fund is used by TxDOT to build, mostly, state-run toll routes.

Since 1986 the department has seen $9 billion rerouted for other uses, KTVT-TV in Dallas/Fort Worth reported.

A separate bill would give local governments an opportunity to generate additional dollars for roads.

The measure – SB257 – would allow an extra penny to be added to local sales taxes for transportation projects.

“We can’t expect toll roads to be the solution for all our transportation needs. While they are part of the mix, the state needs to explore other funding options,” Carona said in a written statement. “This bill not only does that, but most importantly, it gives local communities a voice in how they want to fund their transportation needs.”

One other effort offered by Carona would implement another barrier to privatization of the state’s roadways.

The bill – SB245 – would require that any regional tollway authority or regional mobility authority be given first crack at contracts to build any new toll project within their jurisdictions.

The bulk of the bills are awaiting assignment to committee. SB149 has been forwarded to the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor