Express-News coverage of Carona hearing

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Hundreds of toll foes turn out for state Senate panel’s hearing
Patrick Driscoll

AUSTIN — Hundreds of frustrated people from around the state converged on a hearing held by a Texas Senate committee Thursday and clamored for a rollback on the state’s rush to place tolls on new road lanes.

A somber cadre of Texas Department of Transportation officials — shadowed by lawyers and advisers — held its ground amid jeers and members told the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee why they want to partner with private firms to build toll roads.

But the latest ally of the toll critics, committee Chairman John Corona, R-Dallas, who called the hearing, said he and other legislators have given TxDOT too much tolling power in recent years.

“We are all collective sinners,” he said. “TxDOT has refused to listen to the people, and the Legislature has been entirely too reluctant to provide the revenues necessary for TxDOT to have alternatives.”

One word best describes the main issue: money.

TxDOT officials say they don’t have enough, and critics say tolls as proposed are a tax that will gouge like never before.

“It’s greed, plain and simple,” said Terri Hall of the San Antonio Toll Party. “Toll roads in the hands of a private company automatically translates into the highest possible toll tax.”

A few speakers, facing the crowd’s wrath, stuck up for TxDOT.

With gas taxes frozen since the early 1990s, funds must be scraped from somewhere to build highways for the state’s growth, insisted Joe Krier, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

“We know that as the state continues to grow, our problem continues to grow,” he said. “We’ve got to have more transportation routes.”

Experts disagreed on what’s best.

Dennis Enright, a principal at NW Financial Group in Jersey City, N.J. who’s been involved in dozens of public-private agreements, said governments are essentially trading future profits for upfront cash by letting private corporations run toll roads.

In the end, motorists would pay higher tolls to foot the bill for the profits and steeper interest rates, Enright said.

“My recommendation is you should find out if it can be done by the public sector more efficiently,” Enright said. “If it can, it’s a vital public asset.”

While it makes sense to let the private sector handle risky toll ways, such as some in lightly traveled rural areas, he said there’s little risk with toll roads in congested metropolitan areas.

TxDOT is negotiating contracts with private consortiums to oversee proposed toll projects in both rural and urban areas, including the cross-state Trans-Texas Corridor and additional lanes on 47 miles of Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 in San Antonio.

Mark Florian, a managing director with Goldman Sachs, sees it differently, saying private firms can lower loan costs through tax deductions and by investing their own cash.

Corona has filed several bills to reign in TxDOT’s toll ambitions and give the agency other options, including a bill to index both state and federal gas taxes to construction inflation.

But that measure can’t go anywhere unless a related bill being pushed by House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, makes it out of the House.

Krusee’s bill would raise less than half as much money, which means lawmakers would need to forge a compromise. If that happens, Gov. Rick Perry would then have to sign off.

“But I can tell you this,” Corona said. “Whether there’s a governor’s veto or whether there’s cooperation from House members or not, people of Texas want change. They are not agreeable to current transportation policies.”