Taking the Rurals for a Ride
Wed May 23, 2007 7:30 am

The battle over the transportation bill is hot hot hot. For the last two years, the opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor has been led by rural Texas – in particular, by Lois Kolkhorst, who has championed a two-year moratorium on comprehensive development agreements, the financing tool used by Tx-DOT to privatize roads. But Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth planners and business interests oppose the moratorium because they want their local toll agencies to be able to continue to build projects. Neither the rurals nor the urbans had the strength alone to tackle Tx-DOT, so they formed an uneasy alliance, but their interests remained fundamentally different. To get a moratorium past the House, Kolkhorst had to agree to accept “carve-out” amendments allowing specific projects in the two big metro areas to go forward. This concession, however, left the rural areas vulnerable to betrayal.

To refresh your memory on what happened next, the governor vetoed Wayne Smith’s bill that contained the moratorium, the carve-outs, and other provisions. These were loaded onto a bill by Tommy Williams. The idea was to get the bill throught the House without amendments and send it to the governor. But Kolkhorst believed that the language of the moratorium in Carona’s bill created a loophole that could allow Trans-Texas Corridor 35, the reliever route for Interstate 35 that is the primary target of the rurals’ ire, to go forward. Although comprehensive development agreements (CDAs) were subject to the moratorium, “facility agreements” were not. Kolkhorst believed that Tx-DOT could proceed on TTC-35 by using facility agreements, which are mini-CDAs, and so she amended Carona’s bill to make facility agreements subject to the moratorium. The governor’s office wants the amendment stripped from the bill.

So here’s where we are. HB 1892, the original bill, has been vetoed. SB 792, Williams’ bill, is in conference committee. The governor’s office, through former senator Ken Armbrister, is trying to round up enough votes in the Senate (11) to block an override of the veto. If he is successful, then the governor holds all the cards. He can veto 792 as well, with the calendar preventing an override, and we will be right back to current law, with no moratorium and no provisions enhancing the power of local toll authorities and no restrictions on Tx-DOT. Big money is at stake for Tx-DOT and for the metro areas, billions of dollars in concession payments and toll revenue. All the pressure has come down on Kolkhorst to drop her amendment or take some face-saving language. She has said no. Her former allies, the urbans, appear to be ready to throw the rurals under the bus so that they can get their money.

If the Senate and the House vote to override the veto of 1892, the rurals and the urbans both win. The Perry camp is saying that they have the votes to block an override in the Senate, but that’s what they would say even if they didn’t have the votes, to try to get Kolkhorst to give up. This is a great fight: big money, treachery, a solitary figure trying to stop the locomotive.

The political implications are huge. The anti-Corridor constituency is very large and very vocal. If this session ends without a moratorium, Rick Perry could turn half a million or so Republicans into Democrats, at least for the next election cycle.

Note to readers: Some commenters have suggested that the Kolkhorst amendment is not necessary to assure that the moratorium on TTC-35 stays in effect.

Update: Whether the urbans threw Kolkhorst under the bus or whether she allowed herself to be pushed under it is largely a matter of semantics but the tire treads are there.

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