Senate votes to end private toll moratorium, give highways to highest bidder

Link to story here.

April 06, 2009

Opening the door to more private toll road contracts (UPDATE)
By Peggy Fikac – Houston Chronicle
Transportation officials could enter into new agreements with private companies to operate toll roads – with restrictions – under a pair of bills approved today by the Texas Senate.

The measures, which still need House consideration, represent the latest steps in the battle over leasing toll roads to private companies.

Lawmakers allowed the public-private partnerships in 2003. In the face of a public outcry, they put a moratorium on new agreements (with exceptions) four years later.

Both the moratorium and the ability to enter into such agreements are set to expire later this year.

Senate Bill 404 by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, would extend the authority of the Texas Department of Transportation and regional mobility authorities to enter into so-called comprehensive development agreements through at least 2015 – but only if protections included in another bill also take effect.

Those protections in SB17 by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, include specifying that local authorities and then the state have first right to develop a project as a publicly owned and operated one.

In addition, Nichols’ bill says a contract with a private entity must specify a purchase price in case the state ever needed to buy back the project. The current standard is “fair market value,” which would leave the state on the hook for an unspecified amount of money.

Carona said the private toll agreements are needed as one financing tool, especially since lawmakers for years have balked at raising the gasoline tax that also funds roads.

Anti-toll activist Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom said the private toll agreements amount to selling the state’s highways in exchange for quick cash. She and like-minded activists want transportation officials’ authority to enter into such agreements to expire.

Hall also said the protections in SB17 could be waived. I’m waiting for some clarification on that from Nichols’ office.

UPDATE: Nichols’ office said steps in the process could be waived – such as maximum timelines for making a decision – but not protections.

Senators also approved another transportation-related bill, SB970, by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, to would delete a requirement that TxDOT’s executive director be a registered professional engineer.

It would add the requirement that the executive director be experienced and skilled in transportation planning and development and organizational management. That bill also goes to the House.