Tolling bill with moratorium advances to Texas governor

| 5/29/2007

The Texas House forwarded a compromise transportation bill to Gov. Rick Perry that would impose a moratorium on most new private toll roads in the state for two years.

Spurred by a public outcry against private toll roads during elections a year ago, House members voted 127-19 Saturday, May 26, to sign off on the negotiated deal. The Senate had unanimously approved the changes a day earlier. The legislative actions cleared the way for the bill – SB792 – to advance to the governor’s desk.

Perry vetoed the first version to reach his desk, citing concerns it would jeopardize the state’s entire transportation system, as well as transfer too much road-building authority from the state to local governments. He threatened to call a special session if lawmakers opted to override his veto instead of working with his office to craft a compromise.

The second bill won quick support in the Senate, but the House made 18 amendments. A conference committee was convened to craft a final version that all sides could live with.

The final version sitting atop Perry’s desk does include 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 specific 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. It 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.

A separate provision attached to the bill would limit comprehensive development agreements used in contracts for public-private road building. The agreements are intended to allow the Texas Department of Transportation to complete road-building projects more quickly and economically by using a single contract for both the design and construction tasks, The Associated Press reported.

Another provision would bar the state from entering into noncompete agreements for toll roads.

Perry has until June 17 to decide whether he will sign the bill, let it become law without his signature, or veto it. Since the legislative session has ended, lawmakers would not have the option to attempt an override.

Supporters of the toll moratorium don’t believe the governor will reject the compromise. They say the backlash of the Legislature during the next regular session in 2009 would “just be incredible.”

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor