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Closing the Corridor

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It’s hard to say which was the bigger surprise about the Senate’s support for a bill declaring a two-year moratorium on the Trans-Texas Corridor: that 24 of the 31 senators signed on, or that the bill’s sponsor is former highway commissioner Robert Nichols. The only senators who did not support the moratorium were Kim Brimer, Robert Duell, Robert Duncan, Chris Harris, Eliot Shapleigh, and Carlos Uresti. Brimer has been a strong advocate of highways, going back to his House days, when he carried legislation establishing the Mobility Fund. The 31st senator, Mario Gallegos, continues to recuperate from liver transplant surgery. The House sponsor of the legislation is vocal Corridor critic Lois Kolkhorst.

The bill does three things:
* No comprehensive development agreement–the contract between Tx-DOT and a private partner–may contain “a provision permitting the private participant to operate and collect revenue from the toll road project.”
* A toll project entity (such as Tx-DOT or the toll authorities in Houston and Dallas) “may not sell or enter into a contract to see a toll project of the entity to a private entity.”
* It creates a legislative study committee comprised of nine members, three each to be appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker, to hold hearings on the two issues covered by the moratorium. The committee is to report its findings and recommendations to the 81st Legislature.

The prospects for this bill to become law depend upon two people: Speaker Craddick and Governor Perry. Craddick is responsible for referring the bill to an appropriate committee. If he sends it to Transportation, it’s as good as dead. Chairman Mike Krusee is the godfather of the Trans-Texas Corridor, the principal author of the omnibus bill that gave birth to the Corridor in 2003, about which his House colleagues now have a serious case of buyer’s remorse. As chair of Transportation, he would have control over when–and if–the bill gets a hearing and a vote. He could bury it in committee or he could send it to the floor so late that, even if it passes, Perry will be able to veto it without the possibility of being overridden. I would estimate the chance of a Perry veto as approximately a zillion to one in favor. However, because the bill really doesn’t set transportation policy but is more of an effort at oversight, Craddick could refer it to Government Reform, chaired by Bill Callegeri. The bill is going to come flying out of the Senate. If Callegeri were to give the bill a prompt hearing, and if it can get through Calendars, it could get to the governor’s desk in time for the two houses to override a Perry veto.

My concern is that the instructions to the study committee aren’t broad enough. Here are some questions I hope that the study committee will be charged with asking:

1. Can the state meet its transportation needs by self-funding? Tx-DOT has consistently argued that the answer is no, that the gasoline tax would have to be sextupled, but the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M has suggested that self-funding can be done WITHOUT TOLLS through a combination of a modest increase in the gasoline tax, tying the growth of the tax to inflation in the highway construction index, and issuing bonds. If self-funding is possible, it is the right way to go.

2. Can the public have confidence that a public-private partnership will operate in a way that assures that transportation policy will be conducted in the light of day? The biggest concern with public-private partnerships is that the bureaucracy can enter into contracts that obligate the state without sufficient transparency, accountability, and oversight by elected officials. The desire to withhold proprietary information from public view must not override the public’s right to know.

3. When tolling is necessary, should the goal be to maximize revenue or to provide convenient transportation to the public at a reasonable cost and for a limited time? Toll rates must be set high enough to pay off the roads. Once that is done, toll roads should become free.

4. Should public pension funds be used to help underwrite the Corridor? The reason I think this question should be asked is that I keep hearing that the public-private partnership might include investments by state pension funds. Like so many things about the Corridor, this is a proposal that seems to invite corruption–huge amounts of money being thrown around with very little oversight.

5. How can we ensure the continued growth and quality of the free road system? If we are going to forego the billions of dollars in concession payments from private companies that the state would receive under the current plan for the Corridor, what alternative source of funds is available to help build and maintain free roads?

What is needed is a balance between the grandiose plan for the Corridor, and the public’s preference for a Texas-owned, Texas-operated system of first-class highways. We need TTC-35, the first Corridor highway that is the relief route for Interstate 35. We need the roads currently planned from South Texas into East and West Texas. What we may not need is the grand design for the Corridor highways to include rail, electricity, and pipeline routes. The moratorium is a good place to start.

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