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Senate approves freeze
on private toll-road deals

Moratorium would exempt major projects in North Texas

April 20, 2007

By JAKE BATSELL / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN The movement to halt the privatizing of Texas toll roads gained more momentum Thursday when the Senate unanimously passed a two-year moratorium on private toll-road contracts.

But the Senate, much like the House last week, exempted most of North Texas' most prominent toll projects from the ban.

Most lawmakers consider a freeze on private pay roads to be a foregone conclusion now that both chambers have overwhelmingly passed separate moratorium measures. The key question now is which projects will be spared as the moratorium legislation moves through the session's final stages.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, persuaded his colleagues Thursday to add Loop 9 in southern Dallas County to a list of exempted projects that now includes State Highway 121 in Collin and Denton counties, State Highway 161 in western Dallas County, the planned Trinity Parkway near downtown Dallas, and toll-lane projects on LBJ Freeway and two roads in Tarrant County. Mr. West said the long-planned Loop 9 is an important commercial engine that should not be stalled for another two years.

"The only thing I'm trying to do is keep the issue alive," he said.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, told Mr. West he opposed "carving out exceptions on the grounds that 'No, it's in my district.' "

"This moratorium is far more important than a local concern," Mr. Ogden said. "What we're doing is we're asking ourselves here in the state of Texas, is the only way and the best way to build highways privatizing them?

Mr. West said he offered his amendment Thursday because with so many other exceptions already added to the moratorium, he wants to make sure Loop 9 stays on the table as well.

But Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, said what makes Loop 9 different is that it's the only exempted project that could eventually be part of the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor, a statewide highway that would roughly parallel Interstate 35.

"A vote for this amendment is a vote for privatizing the Trans-Texas Corridor," Ms. Nelson said.

Other North Texas senators argued that Loop 9 should be considered independently of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

After endorsing Mr. West's Loop 9 amendment by a 19-11 vote, the full Senate passed the moratorium bill 30-0.

The moratorium author, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said the objective of his two-year freeze is to reconsider the consequences of privatizing state highways before locking into long-term deals. Support for a moratorium has been building since the state announced a 50-year deal with Madrid-based Cintra to build and oversee the Highway 121 project.

The moratorium would not apply to regional toll agencies such as the North Texas Tollway Authority, which last week decided to begin preparing a belated bid for Highway 121.

As North Texas lawmakers approved the exemption-laden moratorium Thursday, they once again argued that their traffic-choked region cannot afford delay in relieving congestion.

"A moratorium fixes nothing," Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, told Mr. Ogden. "There's not a thing in this bill that will fix the very ills that you and I have talked about."

Mr. Ogden sponsored the Senate version of the 2003 bill that hatched the state's recent multibillion-dollar private toll deals. But he is now pushing for what he calls a "midcourse correction" in the state's toll-road policies.

Mr. Ogden said he supports private contracts to design, build and maintain toll roads. But he said signing away the rights to state highways and their revenues for 50 years is far beyond the scope of what the Legislature intended in 2003.

"I believe that privatizing our highways and selling them to the highest bidder is bad public policy," he said.

Mr. Nichols' moratorium bill now moves to the House, which approved a separate moratorium bill last week. The House bill was amended and approved Wednesday by Senate transportation committee members.

Once both chambers approve a unified moratorium bill, it would go to Gov. Rick Perry, who has championed the state's efforts to privatize toll roads. If the governor vetoes it, the Legislature can override a veto with a two-thirds vote.



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