Tolling bill with moratorium stalls in Texas

| 5/21/2007

Texas Gov. Rick Perry lived up to his word Friday, May 18, when he vetoed a transportation bill that includes a two-year moratorium on most new private toll roads in the state. He said it would jeopardize the state’s entire transportation system.

The governor’s action came within hours of the Texas Senate declining to accept 18 House changes to a bill – SB792. That bill was intended to be a compromise version of the now-vetoed version – HB1892. A House-Senate conference committee is expected to meet as early as Monday, May 21, to craft a final version of SB792 that all sides can live with.

“I’m grateful that legislators are working with me in subsequent legislation to address these concerns I have expressed,” Perry said in a written statement regarding HB1892.

Spurred by public sentiment against private toll roads, both chambers of the Legislature approved the first transportation bill by wide margins. Support for the measure is enough to suggest a successful veto override.

Perry has threatened to round up lawmakers for a special session if they don’t make concessions to him in the revised version.

With that in mind, several state officials spent the better part of a week working to hammer out an agreement to satisfy Perry’s concerns that HB1892 transfers too much road-building authority from the state to local governments.

The bill awaiting discussion in conference 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.

The compromise bill 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, it 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.

One sticking point in negotiations is likely to be a provision that would prevent a company from financing a toll road project if it also helped determined the project’s original value, The Dallas Morning News reported.

If House and Senate lawmakers are unable to reach an agreement on the provisions in SB792 they still can vote to override Perry’s veto of HB1892. That would require approval of at least two-thirds of the members in both chambers.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor