Tolling bill gains approval in Texas House

| 5/18/2007

The Texas House overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday, May 17, that includes a two-year moratorium on most new private toll roads. It now heads to the Senate for approval of changes.

With the threat of a gubernatorial veto and summer session hanging over their heads, House members voted 143-2 to approve a reworked transportation bill – SB792 – they hope will satisfy Gov. Rick Perry.

Several state officials spent the better part of a week working to hammer out an agreement to satisfy Perry’s concerns in another transportation bill sitting atop his desk. The governor has said he would veto that bill – HB1892 – before the 11:59 p.m. Friday, May 18, deadline because it transfers too much road-building authority from the state to local governments.

He also expressed concern the bill on his desk could threaten the state’s federal highway funds and possibly kill key road projects.

Trying to avert the pains of extra work, legislators in both chambers have been working furiously to get the revised bill – SB792 – to the governor’s suite before the deadline. If they are successful, plans are to recall the first transportation bill from Perry’s desk before the Friday veto deadline.

The compromise bill did preserve a two-year ban 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.

Exceptions would be made for projects in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, El Paso, 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.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said she is confident the bill will slow down the Texas Department of Transportation’s aggressive pursuit to privatize toll roads, particularly the Trans-Texas Corridor.

“They were like a rocket, and I think they’re crawling a little more like a turtle now,” Kolkhorst told The Dallas Morning News.

A leading Senate lawmaker said he also supports the toll bill, albeit reluctantly. 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.

At press time, the compromise bill was awaiting final consideration on the Senate floor. If approved there, it would head to the governor’s desk for his signature.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor