March 7, 2007
Legislative simmering over GOP Gov. Rick Perry’s vision of privately funded toll roads around Texas bubbled afresh Tuesday in measures that would freeze state attempts to contract toll roads for two years and would bar local communities from converting roads to tollways.Perry spokesman Robert Black described the proposals as limiting the ability of local communities to meet transportation needs quickly by contracting for tollways, while spending excess toll revenue on other local needs.”The Legislature did the right thing in the last two sessions by increasing local control in the transportation process,” Black said. “The governor believes it would be wrong for the Legislature to come in and try to take that authority back, just so they can get their hands on the dollars.”Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, -said he intends to offer his own toll-related legislation by the end of this week. Krusee, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he will hold hearings on toll issues this month.”It’s not a black-and-white issue,” Krusee said. “We need to explore.”A moratorium could stop state progress on purchasing land for construction of the final 41-mile portion of Texas 130 from southeast Travis County to Seguin. Construction on 49 miles of SH 130, from Georgetown running south, is slated for completion by the end of the year.Senate Bills 1267 and 1268 were filed Tuesday by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jackson- ville, a one-time Perry appointee to the Texas Transportation Commission. Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, filed companion measures.Nichols reported 24 Senate co-sponsors including Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.Watson described the moratorium measure, which also proposes a study of transportation issues, as all about “openness, accountability, and reassurance that public protections will last as long as these roads will. . . . Before we go further with these contracts, we need to be sure of where we’re going.”Nichols said: “We must closely evaluate private toll contracts before we sign away half a century of control of our transportation system. Many provisions in recent toll contracts are alarming.”Kolkhorst said she foresees more than half of the 150-member House signing on as sponsors of the proposals.”We’ve got reinforcements charging up the hill,” she said. “We all need to take a deep breath and slow down before we sign the farm away.”Senate Bill 1267 establishes a 24-month moratorium on state commitments to private companies building toll roads under contract with the state and on the sale of existing tollways to private entities.The proposal would establish a nine-member study group appointed by Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, to report by December 2008 on the long-term effects of privately overseen toll roads.Senate Bill 1268, which has no immediate co-sponsors, would prohibit the conversion of state-owned roads to tollways.In 2002, Perry hatched a plan of crisscrossing Texas with privately funded toll roads to relieve traffic congestion without raising the state’s gas tax, which is mainly dedicated to transportation funding.Lawmakers answered Perry with measures hastening toll projects. Some have since aired second thoughts — lately citing a Feb. 23 report by the state auditor stating that the Texas Department of Transportation has downplayed the potential costs of the Trans-Texas Corridor and potentially inflated expected gains from the project.