Bumpy ride for tollway plans
By AMAN BATHEJA
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
AUSTIN -- The Texas Senate passed its
second bill this session creating a
two-year moratorium on privately funded
toll roads Friday, a sharp rebuke of
Gov. Rick Perry's plan to solve the
state's transportation problems.
Senators voted 27-4 to approve the bill,
which would prevent the creation of toll
roads made by public entities
contracting with private companies.
The Senate passed a similar bill
earlier, but that version appears dead
in the House. The version approved
Friday easily passed the House this
month by a vote of 137-2.
The bill's Senate sponsor, Republican
Tommy Williams of The Woodlands, said he
hopes to send the bill back to the House
as quickly as possible so that any
differences can be reconciled by next
week. The clock is ticking because if
Perry vetoes the measure late in the
session, lawmakers will have adjourned
before having an opportunity at an
A two-thirds majority in both
chambers would be needed to override a
"I'm not spoiling for that fight,"
Williams said during the floor debate.
"[But] I think there's a fundamental
disagreement between the governor and
the Legislature over the future of
transportation in this state."
Perry, in an e-mailed statement,
derided the bill as hypocritical for
exempting current private toll roads.
"I will review this bill carefully
because we cannot have public policy in
this state that shuts down road
construction, kills jobs, harms air
quality, prevents access to federal
highway dollars, and creates an
environment within local government that
is ripe for political corruption," Perry
Not a single senator voiced
opposition to the general idea of a
two-year moratorium on private toll
roads, signifying how far support has
eroded for Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor
Little support remains in the
Legislature for arrangements that could
allow a Spanish company to build and
operate toll roads in parts of Texas for
up to 50 years and significantly raise
toll rates -- the centerpiece of Perry's
The bill drew more than an hour of
debate as a handful of senators
expressed concern that it didn't go far
enough in certain areas, including
giving too much freedom to Harris and
several other counties to ignore the
"We are acting almost like a lynch
mob and we are not thinking about the
implications of what we are doing. So
what I would ask you to do today is not
vote on this bill and then take the time
to do it right," said state Sen. Steve
Ogden, R-Bryan, who eventually voted
against the bill.
Supporters stressed that Friday's
vote was the last chance for lawmakers
to pass any kind of a moratorium on toll
roads if they wanted to have time to
override a potential veto.
Perry will have 10 days from
receiving the bill to sign it, veto it
or let it become law without his
In keeping with other toll road bills
passed this session, exceptions were
made for various projects under way in
Dallas-Fort Worth, largely because of
aggressive lobbying by North Texas
lawmakers who said those projects are
too far along and are vital to relieving
"We're in gridlock on those current
highways," Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort
Worth, told the Senate.
For the projects that are given
exceptions in the bill, lawmakers
approved limiting the maximum length of
a private toll road contract to 40
years, down from 70 years under current
law, and blocked most "noncompete"
clauses a tollway operator can include
in a contract.
Perry has not yet said whether he
will veto this bill or one passed
earlier in the week by both chambers
that would overturn his executive order
requiring girls across the state to
receive a new vaccine that would protect
against most cases of cervical cancer.
That bill also has a good chance of
being immune to a veto from Perry
because of strong support in the
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he
believes that privately financed toll
roads will play an important role in
Texas' transportation initiatives but
that lawmakers should pursue such plans
"By enacting a reasonable two-year
moratorium on privately financed toll
projects, while excluding projects
currently on the drawing board, the
people of Texas and their elected
representatives can take a serious look
at these projects to make sure they
actually work and benefit all Texans,"
Dewhurst said in an e-mailed statement.
Several senators identified the
concerns over Perry's Trans-Texas
Corridor plan as the No. 1 issue of the
last election cycle.
Voters and lawmakers are "scared to
death that our roadways are being sold
out from under us," said Sen. Robert
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, conceded
that the bill was "not perfect" but
heartily endorsed it as a good approach
to a complicated issue.
He said the public will be happy to
see lawmakers weakening the authority of
the Texas Department of Transportation,
which he described as "a renegade
runaway agency that is out of control."
Staff writer John Moritz contributed
to this report.
Local projects to proceed
A two-year moratorium on privately
funded toll roads that passed the Senate
on Friday would exempt projects under
way in North Texas. Local lawmakers were
careful to carve out the exemptions to
ensure that current plans to meet the
growing congestion problems in the area
can go forward.